Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(2) May 2017

The Baby Sellers: Adoption in 21st Century America

Dr. Peter E. Chojnowski

ChojnowskiIt was February 18, 1999 and Sivagama from the city of Chennai, India near the Indian Ocean would see her son Subash for the last time. Sivagama had left her toddler by the neighborhood pump, which was only a few dozen feet from the home she shared with her husband and two children, Subash and an older daughter. Due to the community ethos which was had in Chennai’s Pulianthorpe area, Sivagama thought that someone would be watching her son while she was gone for five minutes. Someone was watching. According to the police report issued years after the incident, it was during her five-minute absence a man likely dragged the child into a 3-wheeled auto rickshaw and brought him to a nearby orphanage on the city’s outskirts that paid cash for healthy children.[1] Over the course of the next five years, Sivagama and, her husband, Nageshwar Rao sold the two small huts that he had inherited from his parents, moved his family into a one-room concrete house and took his daughter out of school to save money. The kidnapping of Subash had reduced his family from a lower middle class status to utter poverty.[2]

In 2005, Nageshwar Rao and Sivagama, purely by chance, received the first information concerning their son since that terrible February day in 1999. A policeman in Chennai overheard two men arguing loudly in a crowded bar. After questioning, the two men and their two female accomplices admitted that they had snatched children on behalf of an orphanage, Malaysian Social Services (MSS) which then would pass the children off to unwitting adoptive parents abroad. The kidnappers of Subash admitted to their being paid 10,000 rupees, about $236, for delivering the child to MSS. The orphanage’s former gardener admitted to being the one who grabbed Subash off of the street. The boy was kept at the orphanage and not adopted for another two years, even though his father had filed a police report immediately after his son was kidnapped.[3] The police and Nageshwar Rao found that Subash had been adopted by an American couple 2 years after he had disappeared, his name had been changed to Ashraf and a false history had been concocted which included a statement from a fictitious birth mother. Even when located and when the facts about the kidnapping were presented to the adoptive American parents, they remained totally uncooperative even though all that the Indian parents wanted was to keep up some communication with their son.[4] The motivation for this kind of “child trafficking” euphemistically referred to as “adoption,” is clear; it is the lucrative adoption fees which motivate the orphanages to maintain a steady supply of adoptable children. The cost to bring a child from India to the United States is around $14,000, this price does not include the standard fee of $3,500 to the orphanage.[5] The situation with regard to the kidnapping involved in many adoptions is no better in other countries. For example, the US State Department estimates that every year around 20,000 children are kidnapped in China, and some independent estimates are much higher. How many of the 3,000 adoptions to American couples from China made in the year of 2012 were from this number of the kidnapped?[6]

America’s Laissez Faire Baby Market

The life and identity-changing nature of adoption is not generally considered by even the most well-intentioned members of the adoption industry or by the public at large. In the United States, there are two ways in which a child can be transferred from one family to another through the legal process of adoption. In the first way, children who are deemed to be “unsafe” living within their families may be removed under “child protection” legislation and, in some cases, be adopted without the consent of their parents. As with those whose mothers have “voluntarily” given up their children for adoption, the adopted children are no longer legally related to their “birthparents,” their siblings, grandparents, and other family members with whom they may well have already formed close relationships.[7]

The second, “voluntary,” type of adoption is the type that we must focus on here. Even though adoption in the United States is common, very little is known about the process by which children are transferred from the birthparents to the adoptive parents. There are approximately 1.5 million adopted people in United States for which there are approximately 6 million parents, both by adoption and birth. With regard to the people who make such dramatic alterations in a child’s life, only the States of Connecticut, Delaware, and Minnesota limit the placement of children to licensed agencies. The remainder of all adoptions are delegated to private businesses creating an international $56.3 billion a year industry that is unregulated. In the United States alone adoption is estimated to be a $2-3 billion industry.[8] However, unlike in other industries and professions, for the adoption industry, “there is no professional standard for, or regulation of adoption practice.”[9] The few regulations which do exist are, for the most part, concerned with fees the adoption agencies are allowed to charge, rather than about the safety and protection of the children whose custody they transfer.[10] Researcher Anne Babb has explained this lack of professional standards in an “industry” that deals with the bodies and fates of real human beings, when she stated that, “[in adoption] professionals have yet to develop uniform ethical standards…or to make meaningful attempts to monitor their own profession….in other professions and occupations, licensing or certification in a specialty must be earned before an individual can offer expert services in an area. The certified manicurist may not give facials; the certified hair stylist may not offer manicures…Yet, individuals with professions as different as social work and law, marriage and family therapy, and medicine may call themselves ‘adoption professionals….There remains no national professional organization for adoption specialists, no professional recognition of adoption practice as a specialty of any discipline, no established education and training requirements and no regular professional meetings and forums for adoption ‘professionals.’”[11]

A Brief History of America’s Adoption Stork

It has been the accepted norm in human societies of the past that one did not adopt except within kinship circles. This traditional situation remains true even today in the world at large. Even in the United States, it was relatives, friends, or neighbours who took in and raised orphaned children. The Common Law was hostile to adoption based on the maxim that “only God can make an heir.”[12] It was the intense European immigration to the United States in the mid-19th century which was the catalyst changing this traditional situation. The Industrial Revolution in America created a class of city-dwellers that could no longer form larger, interlocking communities. Even in these conditions, it was still generally assumed in the 19th century and the early 20th century that an unmarried pregnant woman would keep her baby.[13]

Even though the first adoption legislation in the United States was passed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1851, the major event, really initiating the adoption industry, was the program that became known as the “Orphan Trains.” These trains were an attempt by the Children’s Aid Society to “rescue” poor and homeless children from the streets of New York City. Between 1887 and 1929, 150,000 children were given to new families in what has been called, “one of the largest social experiments in American history.”[14] In order to find places for the “street urchins,” a market was created for them. The Orphan Trains would pass through towns throughout America, stopping to display the “orphaned” children like slaves at an auction. They were offered to whomever would take them. Farmers were encouraged to take them as “an extra set of hands.”[15]

In the 1920s and 30s, with the rise of the position of professional social workers, there started an effort to find more “home-like” environments for children as opposed to putting them in orphanages.[16] The social workers in the 40s began to support secrecy in adoptions, which led to the sealing of birth certificates and adoption records. During the height of American adoption activity, when US adoptions peaked at 1.5 million from 1945 to 1973, 28 States closed birth certificates and sealed additional records to the parties of the adoption. Sealing the records erased the child’s past, “helping” the child to be more adoptable, and also protecting adopting families from interference by surrendering parents.[17]

The adoption industry in America became a “seller’s market” when the rates of teen pregnancy began to slowly drop by 1994. When the supply of babies began to dry up, strategies changed from marketing children to marketing the idea of adoption to mothers. Often this “marketing” became nothing more than a form of mental coercion. In a 2006 online survey of mothers who relinquished their children through adoption, 82% of the respondents reported feeling pressured to relinquish. 60% said they experienced coercion, signed under duress, or felt their legal rights had been in some way denied.[18] The set of ideas which are directed towards the pregnant women by the adoption industry can be seen as the psychological manipulation of the vulnerable. The basic idea is that she is not capable of being a good mother to her child and that others will provide her child with a better life. Expectant mothers are advised to finish school, even college, and are warned about the cost of raising a child. She is likewise made to believe that she is doing a wonderful thing for a childless couple or woman and that she is saving her child from a life of misery. Behind all of this, there is a bottom line. The adoption industry is responsible for $2-3 billion annually in fees and expenses, in the United States alone.[19]

The Australian Solution: Preserving the Integrity of the Mother’s and Child’s Life

In the case of Subash in India and in the case of a child born to an American woman in difficult circumstances, we have a child’s life being treated as a marketable commodity by an industry that is hardly regulated in the United States. This trade in human lives can be highly profitable for the many middle men involved between “procuring” the child to “delivering” the child to their new family. In so far as the child is viewed as a “generic” commodity --- shorn of all internal connections and relations to his or her native community and, instead, reduced to a person with more or less “marketable” external characteristics (e.g., physical health, skin color, physical beauty). The human position which Almighty God has put the child in, like He has put all men and women in, is erased forever. The most significant “position” which a child has is the one in which he is related to the mother who bore him and the father that sired him. It is by being related to and living amidst these that the boy or girl has a history, lives a dynamic present within their own situation, and is directed toward a path uniquely their own.

But, is there any other way of treating difficult maternal and familial situations which involve the life of a child?

Under pressure from a conference organized by the National Council for the Single Mother and Her Child, the State of South Australia passed the Children’s Protection Act 1993. This Act led to fundamental changes to the adoption scene throughout the Commonwealth of Australia. No longer were there commercially-based adoption agencies in Australia; all private adoptions are illegal and all domestic adoptions are enacted by State Government departments. Legislation in South Australia, for example, says that consent to adoption cannot be given until the child is at least 2 weeks old, counselling after the birth is compulsory and it must be completed at least 3 days prior to consent being given. At the time, the mother of the child must be given information in writing regarding the consequences of adoption. After her consent has been given, there is a minimum period of 25 days during which her consent may be revoked. During the entire adoption process, when there is an adoption process, there is to be no contact of any kind between expectant mothers and prospective adopters. Besides this, a family allowance is given by the Federal Government to parents and, even, single mothers who wish to take care and raise their own children. This allowance has been available since 1973. Has it worked? In the State of South Australia, there were almost 1,000 adoptions in 1971. At the time of the Children’s Protection Act’s passage there were only 22 adoptions of Australian-born children. In 2005 that number had dropped to 2.[20]

For those seeking to protect the integrity of the life of children, such like solutions must be studied and adopted.


  1. Scott Carney, “Meet the Parents: The Dark Side of Overseas Adoption” In Mother Jones (March/April 2009).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Scott Carney, The Red Market: On the Trail of the World Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers (New York: William Morrow, 2011), Kindle edition, loc. 1267.
  4. Ibid., loc. 1410.
  5. Carney, “Meet the Parents” (March/April 2009). Also, see, “Indian children ‘kidnapped for adoption in Australia’” in The Courier-Mail (August 22, 2008).
  6. Charlie Custer, “Kidnapped and Sold: Inside the Dark World of Child Trafficking in China” in The Atlantic (July 25, 2013).
  7. Mirah Riben, The Stork Market: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry (Dayton, NJ: Advocate Publications, 2007), from the preface by Evelyn Robinson, MA, p. x.
  8. Statistics from World Initiative for Orphans (WIO) Prinsessegracht 3, 2514 AN The Hague,
  9. Anne L. Babb, Ethics in American Adoption (Westport, CT: Bergen and Garvey, 1999), p. 181.
  10. Riben, pp. xviii-xix.
  11. Babb, pp. 57-58.
  12. Riben, p. 1.
  13. Ibid., p. 2.
  14. See, Marilyn Irvin Holt, The Orphan Trains, Placing Out in America (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), p. 1ff
  15. Riben, pp. 1-2.
  16. Ibid., p. 2.
  17. Ibid., p. 3.
  19. Riben, pp. 41-42.
  20. Riben, pp. ix-xi, from forward by Evelyn Robinson, MA.