Legalizing Baby Sales

Don't We Want More Happy Parents, Healthier Pregnancies and Genetically Advantaged Children?

Julia Galef has more from her wonderful unpopular ideas series. This one covers unpopular ideas about children and reproduction. There’s a lot of interesting ideas in there but the one I found most appealing, though unfortunately pretty unlikely to be adopted, was the suggestion that we should allow parents to ‘sell’ their newborns.

There are some obvious problems with allowing people to do this in the third world. In traditional subsistence farming contexts children may offer a net economic gain to a family particularly if given only minimal accommodations. No one wants to return to the halcyon days when we hired children out as indentured servants where unsympathetic farmers would `raise’ them in Dickensian conditions. However, in the developed world even the most neglected child is still a net economic cost so we can safely assume no one will be buying children to have someone they can extract work from without the guilt of mistreating their own offspring.

Such a policy would help many loving couples find children to adopt and I even believe there is a real benefit to removing children from the care of anyone so uninterested in them (or convinced they are unfit) that they are willing to make such a sale1.

But won’t this just result in drug addicts and other unfit parents popping out babies left and right for a bit of cash? Well maybe some college profs with oxy addictions might but babies to fund their habit but those babies would be in demand from parents who will offer them a good home (and unlike alcohol there is no analogous fetal opiate, meth or even crack syndrome). However, I suspect (but haven’t been able to find statistics on this) that the children born to street addicts already have plenty of problems finding adoptive parents. Moreover, pregnancy is a long, difficult process that its safe to assume anyone who finds it worthwhile to grow babies for sale is offering a high-value baby (good genes and health) who will be placed in a comfortable living situation.

What about the idea that it would incentivize women to choose the couple willing to pay the most for the child rather than the best family? First, I’m skeptical of the ability of birth mothers, given the lack of truly extensive interactions and their limited control over the process have any particular ability to pick good parents. Indeed, I suspect that the ability and willingness of the adopting family to pay would actually be a better indicator of the child’s future welfare than any gut level instinct. Second, when a birth mother decides between two potential families wanting to adopt the families who weren’t selected presumably still go on to adopt someone making this whole matter a wash from a social welfare perspective.

Basically, selling babies isn’t really any different than the surrogacy arrangements we are already comfortable allowing except that it no longer incentivizes people to only pretend to be willing to give the child up or to squeeze more money from the deal with a last minute change of heart. Where surrogacy arrangements incentivize the pregnant woman to divert money intended to increase the child’s health to their own pockets baby sales incentivize offering documented high quality care to maximize sale value.

Really, the only downside I can really see is just how obvious it will make our racial preferences in children. White babies will be worth way more than black ones.

  1. In developed countries there is little reason to fear that more people would be extorted to sell their children if the practiced was legalized. One might imagine that in war torn parts of the world a market in children would give warlords the bright idea of forcing women to sell their children and give them the money. In the first world the only pressure on a woman to sell is the crappy circumstances she would be in whether or not baby sales were legal and if that induces her to make a sale I suspect everyone will be better off as a result, particularly the child.