An Argument for “Selling” Babies

“Behave, or I’ll sell you.”

This “threat” was one I heard with some regularity as a child. It was my mother’s way of letting me know that I was driving her up a wall. It was usually followed by something like, “then they’ll pay me to take you back.” (In retrospect, if this was true, my mother missed out on a serious profit opportunity.)

This week marks National Infertility Awareness Week. The idea behind the campaign, as the name suggests, is to raise awareness of the variety of fertility problems that keep many couples from conceiving children naturally.

As a “woman of reproductive age,” this is an issue that has crossed my mind on more than one occasion. Will my soon-to-be husband and I be able to have children? Will it be easy or difficult? We can’t know until the time comes. For several friends and acquaintances, however, they do know, and it’s not the answer they were seeking. They know that, even if the reasons are unclear, they have been unable to successfully conceive or bring a pregnancy to term.

A quick Google search of “infertility treatments” yields some two million results, ranging from hormonal options, to surgeries, to IVF, egg donors, and surrogacy. Still, others point out the possibility of adoption as a way to “grow a family.” This last option, though it sounds simple, is far from it. The cost of adopting ranges significantly. According to the Bureau of Children, adoption costs can range from very little ($0-$2,500) to $40,000 or more. To put this into context, the median household income in the U.S. is about $50,000. Simply stated, this price tag, along with an array of legal fees and bureaucratic red tape, takes many prospective adoptive parents out of the market or prevents them from adopting for years.

It is with these costs in mind, and the knowledge that there are thousands of couples that would like to expand their families but cannot (if you will, a shortage in adoptable children), that I’d like to make a suggestion.

People should be allowed to sell the guardianship rights to their babies.

Stick with me here. I am not advocating human trafficking or the idea of kidnapping babies in order to sell them to desperate parents. What I am suggesting is a general deregulation of the market for adoption. Allow birth mothers to enter into contracts with adoptive parents for the rights to parent their child for profit. It’s presently illegal for such transactions to take place. Birth mothers cannot receive payment for agreeing to adopt out their children (though they can have their medical expenses related to the pregnancy covered).

Before unleashing your moral outrage at the idea of “selling babies,” consider the potential for very significant, very positive outcomes for all parties involved. Allowing birth mothers to profit from an adoption transaction fundamentally changes the costs and benefits of a variety of transactions. Economist Donald J. Boudreaux outlines seven likely effects from such a profit-driven market in his 1995 paper, “A Modest Proposal to Deregulate Infant Adoptions.” They include:

  1. The “baby shortage” will diminish or be eliminated as women enter the market to sell the rights to parent their children. The “supply” of infants to be adopted is more likely to meet current demand.
  1. Birth mothers will experience greater wealth as they may profit from the sale of their parental rights.
  1. There will be fewer abortions. As women experiencing unplanned and unwanted pregnancies look at their options, the potential for financial gain means fewer women are likely to terminate. Stated differently, the cost of abortion for women is higher in that they are forgoing the potential income they could receive from an adoption.
  1. Infant health will improve. Since healthy children are likely to command a higher purchase price than ill ones, birth mothers would face strong incentives to receive proper prenatal care and stop behaviors that could damage the fetus.
  1. Child abuse would decline. The current welfare system incentivizes women to keep their children, rather than give them up or abort them. “Marginally wanted” children, as Boudreaux calls them, are more likely to be abused or mistreated. Allowing women to profit from selling their parental rights would mean these children would be more likely to be adopted into loving homes.
  1. Fewer children will be placed in the notoriously dysfunctional and disastrous foster care system (see #5).
  1. The price of fertility treatments will fall. Since adoption and fertility treatments are what economists call “substitute goods,” or goods that can be used for the same purpose, an increase in adoption would decrease the demand for fertility treatments. As demand falls, the price of treatments would fall as well.

As individuals look to raise awareness about fertility issues this week, many will offer money, thoughts, and prayers to those struggling to have children and expand their families. As the above suggests, however, there is something else we can do. That is, we can suggest some serious changes to current adoption laws. Not only would such changes benefit countless couples experiencing fertility issues, but would decrease the number of abortions, increase the income of many women, and benefit children by placing more of them into loving, caring homes.

“I’ll sell you,” though said most often in jest, may be the best words some new babies could hear. They could also be the words allowing millions of couples struggling with infertility to achieve the families they so desperately desire.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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