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Is It Right to Up the Ante for Our Adoption?

Large payments to a birth mother? Something's not right.

Q: My husband and I (an upper-middle-income couple) are trying to adopt an American baby through private channels. We can afford the medical expenses and legal fees, but several times, despite seeming to bond well with the birth mother, we have lost out to another adopting couple. Our attorney says we're getting outbid on "living expenses" being offered to the mother. Do you think these payments -- which I suspect include a lot more than routine living expenses -- are ethical?

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There is an ethical consensus that adoption should be "economically neutral" for the birth mother. That is, she should neither suffer materially nor gain financially from giving up her baby, and the selection of adoptive parents should be based solely on the best interests of the child. Large payments to a birth mother, which smack of illegal "baby selling," taint these decisions and probably entail unethical conduct by all the parties -- attorney, adoptive parents and the pregnant woman.

Five states ban payments to the birth mother for living expenses, and 21 states set limits, including dollar amounts (with caps ranging from about $1,500 to $5,000 total), length of support (typically a few months before to six weeks after birth), and the kinds of expenses allowed (usually rent and utilities, but sometimes transportation, groceries and maternity clothes, too). Most states require adoptive parents to disclose all payments made to the birth mother as a condition for finalizing the adoption, but penalties are rare.

If you're getting "outbid" by other prospective adopters, it might be because your home state's law is very permissive regarding what kinds of living expenses can be covered and how much can be paid to the birth mother. Or perhaps others are secretly violating your state's limits by offering large payments under the table. Wealthy couples have been known to offer birth mothers inducements that include a new car, college tuition, health club membership, a new post-pregnancy wardrobe or simply a lump sum.

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