Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

The price of a baby

Why are international adoptions by American families falling? The State Department reports that the number of foreign children adopted by Americans fell 13 percent last year to 11,059.  That’s fewer than half the foreign kids adopted in 2004, the peak year for baby imports.

Demand for foreign babies is unlikely to have abated. One reason foreign adoptions have grown in recent decades is that more Americans’ have decided to delay childbearing until they establish a career. The share of babies born to women aged 35 and older grew more than threefold between 1980 and 2009, to over 14%.  Since fecundity declines with age, older families seeking to have kids are more often forced to adopt.

The reason for the decline is that foreign babies have become more costly.

When I visited Antigua, Guatemala, a few years ago I was struck by how many bars and restaurants had baby changing tables in the bathroom – a fixture more at home in Park Slope, Brooklyn than in a poor country where Pampers are a luxury.

It was, of course, a side effect of the baby trade. The number of babies adopted by American parents from Guatemala rose sharply throughout most of the past decade to a peak of 4,700 in 2007 –second only to China’s 5,400— muscling past those from Russia, Romania and Korea.

The reason, of course, was that they were cheaper. Guatemala is not only nearer than Russia. The paperwork was less time consuming, and rules very lax. The adoption guide published by Adoptive Families magazine estimates that adopting a baby from Russia would set parents back $53,700 in legal fees, travel costs and and so forth. A Chinese baby cost $26,500. A Guatemalan kid could be adopted for as little as $25,000.  And, notably, they were much easier to get.

But as concern has grown about the rise of an international baby trade, many countries are tightening the rules and clamping down on foreign adoptions. The Chinese started squeezing foreign adoptions some five years ago.  Between 2005 and 2009 adoptions from China fell by more than half. Russia too clamped down and adoptions declined by two thirds.

In 2008, Guatemala also slammed the brakes on the trade. Concerned by cases of birth mothers being paid or even coerced to give up their children, it banned new international adoptions until it could bring its fraud-ridden adoption industry up to the standards of the Hague Convention on Adoptions. And the United States stopped processing new adoption petitions from Guatemala. Last year, only 51 babies from Guatemala were adopted by American families.

But there is no reason to fear international adoptions will peter out. Even as some countries are putting new hurdles to the practice, other suppliers are rising. Last year, Americans adopted 2,513 babies from Ethiopia. That is six times as many as in 2005. Ethiopia, interestingly, is not party of the Hague Adoption Convention.

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