What's wrong with selling babies?

'All she did wrong was to hire a crooked broker who committed the cardinal sin of the market place - selling what was already sold'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The adoption of unwanted children is, we all agree, a good thing. In this country, in the wake of the Bramley affair, in which a couple went on the run with two children they were fostering after they had been turned down for their adoption, the Prime Minister himself headed up moves to make adoption easier.

The adoption of unwanted children is, we all agree, a good thing. In this country, in the wake of the Bramley affair, in which a couple went on the run with two children they were fostering after they had been turned down for their adoption, the Prime Minister himself headed up moves to make adoption easier.

In the US last year, in paragraph three of his final State of the Nation address, President Clinton highlighted adoption as a social policy that a caring government should pursue. "And our economic revolution has been matched by a revival of the American spirit: crime down by 20 per cent... adoptions up by 30 per cent..."

Now it turns out, in the former governor's old state of Arkansas anyway, adoption is something of a free-for-all, with an archaic procedure that effectively means that if you're willing to tell a few porkies, then anything goes. That, at least, is the lesson learned by the story of the Allens and the Kilshaws - two couples who were both sold the same twins. But while there has been public and governmental revulsion about the "trade in babies", I find it difficult to work out what is, beyond the sensational details, really new about this story.

Adoption in the US is a great deal easier than it is in Britain, which is why, to name but the latest celebrity to do so, Calista Flockhart can find herself with baby with ease. Likewise, British couples with some cash to spare have been going to the US to get themselves babies since long before the internet age.

One of the loveliest girls I've ever met was adopted from Texas, years ago, by her British parents, and told of her personal history at the earliest possible opportunity. No child could be more cherished. I wonder if she has seen the headlines condemning her parents' actions so wholeheartedly, and trashing the very basis upon which her happy and contented family is constructed.

That is not to say that this girl's antecedents are ideal. Of course it is unfair that childless people with enough money to travel and pay fees can bypass an adoption system that would probably not be able to give them the baby they want. Of course the idea that money is changing hands to secure the future of children is unpalatable. But money changes hands in this country too. Adoption is an expensive business. The difference is that in the UK it is taxpayers' money, and - unless the Scottish Catholic Church intervenes - the mother of a baby put up for adoption is not supported financially.

Any intelligent person who has remained unaware of the long-standing practice of charging "placement" fees at private adoption agencies, and the bringing of children into the country as adoptees from America, must be completely out of touch. One thing only has brought this particular case to the disapproving attention of the world.

That thing is the justified anger of Richard and Vickie Allen, who for two months had adopted the twin daughters of Tranda Wecker, before having them snatched away from them. It was their complaints that brought the case to the public attention, and their complaints that have revealed a catalogue of double-dealing and rule-bending by Tina Johnson, the adoption broker, who is the real villain of the piece. Apart from her, one can feel compassion for almost everyone embroiled in the lurid story of the "baby traders". First, there are the six-month-old twins, once Keyara and Kiara of St Louis, Missouri, then, briefly, of San Bernardino, California, and now Belinda and Kimberley of Buckley, North Wales.

There are Richard and Vickie Allen, whose son, Andrew, also adopted, is confused and upset by the absence of his new sisters. This family, apart from the twins themselves, are the people who have been most wronged.

There is Ms Wecker, the girls' birth mother. She may not be the most scrupulous of women. But when her fourth and fifth children were conceived to a cocaine-addict father, she at least acted quickly to secure them a new home while they were young enough to establish themselves without too much trauma. She did what many American women do, in approaching a private agency to find new parents for her daughters. Now she is reviled across continents as a "heartless mum". Dad, as is usual in these cases, is not much criticised, even though he is said to have received a substantial payment himself.

There are the Kilshaws, who again have done nothing that many other British citizens have not done, and find themselves nonetheless in a maelstrom of controversy. They have finally realised that their many appearances on television to put their view were not doing them any good. The two of them, particularly Judith Kilshaw, come across badly. Her claim that "morally it might be wrong, but in law we are right" is so clinical. The course of the story might have been different had they been more sympathetic.

First, people would understand them more if they had been a childless couple. Instead, they have two sons, but want a girl. How many couples in this situation count their blessings and accept that their children are sons not daughters? But even worse, Mrs Kilshaw already has one daughter by a previous relationship. Why this greed for more children? This does not appear to be a normal longing, but an irrational, obsessional one.

Second, they come across as defiant and selfish, unwilling to empathise with others involved (including the twins) and confident, as if the children were chattels, that "possession is nine-tenths of the law". Muck has inevitably been raked about them as well. The video now in the hands of the media, showing a "ghostbuster" visiting their home to investigate sundry possessions by such spirits as the Milky Man, makes them seem more than eccentric.

The fact that they already have two sons of their own living in their home - once reported by the press as "plush" and "seven-bedroomed", now as "unkempt" and "overrun with dogs and cats" - simply serves to point up the great irony of adoption.

While the Kilshaws would have to be found to be extremely terrible parents before their sons were taken away, social services are investigating the couple to see if they are fit parents for the twins. While no one has the smallest control over who can and cannot have children of their own, the rules for adoptive parents, even after the recent reforms, remain stringent.

It is easy to argue that this stringency is more than necessary. Even with the careful vetting that prospective adoptive parents undergo in this country, up to 50 per cent of adoptions fail. Many adoptive children have stayed too long with natural parents who are unable to cope for them to trust adults and make a secure world for themselves.

In a society that, in every other respect, is motivated by money, did Tranda Wecker act only out of greed and not in the best interests of her children? Or without a small financial incentive, might she have struggled on for some years, until things got completely out of hand? Maybe all she did wrong was to hire a broker who was herself crooked, and who committed the cardinal sin of the marketplace - selling what she had already sold. In an ideal world this would not happen. But neither would adoption.

None of this is to say that the American way of adoption - or the way of adoption in some particularly lax states - is right or healthy. It's just that the parents involved in this scandal are not uniquely evil or unusually immoral. An adoption conducted by a commercial agency is not necessarily one that will not be a success.

It is a scandal that US adoption agencies are so badly regulated that operators such as Tina Johnston can grow rich from such a trade. Even that though, is a fact that we in Britain can do nothing about. All we can do is ban British people from bringing in children they have adopted in countries whose policies do not match our own. Then ask ourselves if our policies are really so perfect, and if such a move would always, always, be in the best interests of the child.