Psst! Want to buy a baby?

The Washington Post reports on Guatemala’s baby trade:

A year after Guatemala’s emergence as the second-largest foreign source of babies for adoption to the United States, a new push by the Guatemalan government to wrest control of the process from private agencies has stirred an emotional backlash from thousands of prospective adoptive parents in the United States…
…Almost two thousand miles away in Guatemala’s capital city, Guatemala’s solicitor general, Mario Gordillo, is haunted by a different image: Like many critics of the current setup, he worries that thousands of desperately poor Guatemalan women are being induced to conceive children for adoption by private brokers offering as much as $3,000 a baby.

Robin Hanson, at "Overcoming Bias", is all in favour of the trade:

It is in general a good thing if willing women are induced by money to have babies families want to adopt.  Not only do the woman and the family benefit, but the baby gets a life!  Positive externalities don’t get much larger than this.  We need lower, not higher, barriers to such exchange.
To lower the lawyer’s cut, simplify the law and lower barriers to entry.  And why begrudge the mother $3000 when US agencies take a $6000 cut for "paperwork"? How does it help her to limit her options?  Do we really have good reasons to think mothers systematically misjudge such options?
On my way to visit Tikal in Guatemala, my tour guide proudly noted how development agencies had helped the local village switch to producing art, rather than the usual exports.  It seemed such agencies valued art production well beyond the income it brings.  Their priorities, art over bananas over babies, are the opposite of mine.

There are many caveats, but my intuitive response is to agree with Robin.
This is a repugnant market – others include prostitution, dwarf-tossing, terrorism futures, organ sales and (once upon a time) life insurance. Al Roth of Harvard coined the term and developed the idea [pdf] and both Robin and Al helped me with a documentary about repugnant markets.
But we didn’t talk then about babies; the difference between selling a baby and selling a kidney is that the baby will eventually have an opinion about what happened and the kidney will not. Still, as Robin points out, the alternative may be no baby at all.
Any philosophical musings about how seriously to take the welfare of people who have not yet been conceived? Comments below, if you will.

Tim Harford’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.