Courtesy Reuters

The Baby Trade

A GLOBAL BUSINESS

Children are our most precious resource -- and, like most precious resources, they are traded across borders. As more parents have adopted babies from abroad over the past decade, the international market for children has boomed: in 2001, some 34,000 children -- mainly from Asia and central and eastern Europe -- found new homes in western Europe and North America.

With 9.5 million children now languishing in developing-world orphanages, there are many more opportunities to create loving families across borders. Yet, because the demand for infants from poor countries is rising among adults who live in wealthy ones, corruption has distorted the baby trade. Unscrupulous go-betweens buy or abduct infants from needy biological parents and sell them to eager adoptive families.

Facilitating the placement of orphaned children while attacking the corruption that accompanies it will be a fine balancing act. A free market for babies is out of the question: while infants can fetch a high price, they are not, and should never be treated as, commodities. But banning adoptions from countries that tolerate corrupt adoption rings is no solution either. Moratoriums have been imposed on adoptions from Cambodia and Romania, for example, but they only succeeded in denying orphans there a chance to find families while shifting the demand to new suppliers such as Russia and China.

A more promising course would be to reinforce the multilateral legal regime that regulates global adoption. The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, now in force in 54 countries, requires states to facilitate international adoptions while stamping out exploitation. Strengthening this regime is essential to the well-being of orphans and to the parents who would receive them. But doing so will require more diplomatic pressure, more foreign aid, and more political courage in confronting traffickers than the international community has yet mustered.

BABY BOOM

Historically, international adoption has sprouted in the aftermath of wars. After World War II, American families adopted European orphans, chiefly from Germany, Italy,

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