New Internationalist

Children For Sale

Issue 194

new internationalist
issue 194 - April 1989

Children for sale
Adopting a Third World child certainly shows more commitment than sending
it monthly sponsorship cheques. So is it better to buy a baby - if doing
so will save its life? Harry Philips investigates.

Chaim and Yael Ninyo were reluctant tourists: Asuncion, Paraguay was not the sort of place where the average working-class couple from Israel would have chosen to take a vacation. The summer heat was unbearable, the beggars relentless and the streets still bristled with the soldiers of the hostile dictator Alfredo Stroessner. But the Ninyos had more on their agenda than an exotic time in a foreign country. Chaim and Yael were waiting to adopt a baby.

The Ninyos needed a baby brother for their seven-year-old daughter and despite years of trying it had not happened naturally. An Israeli adoption was out of the question because so few babies were available and the Ninyos - in their forties - were too old to be eligible. It seemed hopeless - until a friend of a friend told them about adoptable babies in Paraguay, and gave them a contact.

The Ninyos were desperate. They packed their clothes to conceal $20,000 in cash and flew to Paraguay to meet a stranger in Da Vinci's coffee shop. In broken English they placed their order for a fair-skinned baby boy: the man agreed to deliver in two weeks. The Ninyos returned to their room and sweated out the days nervously waiting for the miracle, unaware that they had begun dealing with one of the biggest baby-trafficking operations in South America.

Traffic in babies
Across Western Europe and North America, abortion and birth control have created an overwhelming demand for adoptable babies. In countries such as West Germany, the UK, Israel, Canada and the US, state-organized adoptions can take eight years or longer due to a lack of available infants. By the time couples like the Ninyos make it to the top of the waiting list, they have become too old to be eligible. So they search for a short-cut.

Inevitably they hear about the possibility of adopting babies in foreign countries. Many sign up with international adoption agencies only to learn that it also takes several years to adopt a child through these organizations. The couple's patience runs out. At this point some - like the Ninyos - decide to take matters into their own hands. Before long they enter the world of black-market babies, where hard cash can produce children in days instead of years.

For couples like Chaim and Yael, the desire to have children is matched only by the vast numbers of parentless children in Third World countries like Brazil, Colombia, Peru and El Salvador. There are seven million abandoned children in Brazil alone. Many wander semi-clad through the slums of the major cities. At midnight a short drive in Rio de Janeiro reveals dozens of pre-school children bedded down for the night on a sidewalk in the chic tourist neighborhood of Copacabana. Their scrawny bodies stretch out on the paving stones with only a few pieces of newspaper separating them from the chill of the street.

Many have mothers like Marlene, the 26-year-old who inhabits a car-sized cardboard shack in the squalor of a nearby shantytown. Marlene has already given birth to seven children. The youngest three still live with her. All receive nourishment from Marlene's breast. Of the others, one died and three were abandoned shortly after they were weaned in order to make way for the new babies. Abortion and birth control 'are for the rich', says Marlene. She had no money even to buy a bottle of milk, so she abandoned her children hoping that they would find a family to take care of them; the chances of this are negligible in these slums.

Supply and demand
Superficially it appears an equation of supply and demand: the Third World has the adoptable children while the West has the demand. But the demand from the vast majority of childless couples is for children that look like them and are young enough to learn a new language and culture. The lucrative illegal trade in white babies. Carlos Pereira - a prominent lawyer in the State of Santa Catarina - is currently pending trial for operating a black-market adoption agency. There are large numbers of abandoned children in Santa Catarina, But unlike other regions of Brazil, many of the children are fair - the result of an influx of Western European settlers in the first half of this century. Pereira arranged his first adoption for an Israeli woman in 1982. Four years later his law practice had taken a back seat to his baby-ranch - a thriving business with a staff of nurses and baby-finders, a stable of pregnant teenagers, and an annual income of more than quarter of a million dollars.

Pereira's staff regularly visited poor neighborhoods, identifying unwanted pregnancies and offering healthcare, food and the equivalent of about $75 in exchange for a newborn baby. To the impoverished and pregnant young women of the slums it was irresistible; by 1986 Pereira was delivering fresh babies with Brazilian passports to grateful customers from Israel, West Germany, the UK and the US. He had arranged 150 adoptions over two years and the business was taking off.

For a few thousand dollars, prospective parents could visit Pereira's plush baby-ranch. Here they rented comfortable rooms, lounged by the swimming pool and chose from a number of available infants. Unlike Brazilian adoption agencies which take two years, the baby-ranch at Itajai filled its orders within two weeks, Carlos Pereira received nothing but praise from his foreign clientele, but unfortunately for him, not all of the young mothers in his stable were as pleased.

In Itajai Brazilian Federal Police Chief Alcioni di Santana received complaints from thirty mothers that Pereira had deceived them into giving up their babies. Santana raided the ranch, seized twenty infants and detained twenty-two foreign couples. His evidence indicated that Pereira was preparing to increase his prices from $5,000 per baby to $8,000 - doubling his net profit to $6,000 for each transaction and turning the baby-ranch into a million-dollar business. The customers, it seemed, would be only too happy to pay. Santana said he had sympathy for the childless couples: 'I felt there was a great deal of good faith on their part,' said the chief, 'Their desire is just to have a child, while Carlos Pereira's desire is to profit. Profiteering is the crime, not having the child,'

Pereira claims the evidence of the complaining mothers is fabricated, As to the morality of buying and selling babies for profit, his conscience is clear: 'I feel very proud,' he says. 'If I could, I would send a million (babies out of Brazil). I would like to send all of the babies that need care, that need food, that need a mother and a father.' Meanwhile at least three less scrupulous baby-selling rings operate elsewhere in the State. Among these are people who pose as nurses to steal infants from hospital maternity wards: in Rio de Janeiro, 150 such thefts were reported in one month, Newborn babies are also smuggled into Paraguay and sold - complete with false Brazilian passports - for up to $20,000 each, The police raid shut down Carlos Pereira's operation but the black market in babies continues. Adoption officials in North America estimate that five per cent of healthy foreign infants adopted come through the black market.

As for Pereira - he was forced to start turning down a growing number of referrals from desperate childless couples. Among these were Chaim and Yael Ninyo's. Unable to contact Pereira, the Ninyos were eventually referred to a less-reputable baby dealer in Asunción, Paraguay.

Saving tiny lives
After countless coffees and several hot sleepless nights, the Ninyos were informed that their order had arrived. They were taken to meet their precious cargo. But there had been a serious mistake. The contact delivered not one baby boy - but a pair of sickly month-old twins - a boy and a girl. The contact said they had been abandoned at birth in Brazil and driven overland to be smuggled into Paraguay. Chaim Ninyo was stunned. 'The boy was shaking all the time and did not know how to drink milk. Every time he was hungry, he would open his mouth like a small bird.'

The Ninyos were offered the twins at a discount black-market price of $20,000 for both. Chaim was now bothered about the illegality of the transaction. But he was even more worried about the babies - one of whom appeared near death. 'We know it was not legal. We know it,' Ninyo recalls, struggling to find the right words in English. 'Of course it bothered me (because) if it was legal, maybe they take better care of them, and we not find them like we found them.'

The experience quickened the bond they felt for the children. They took the twins along with two freshly-minted Brazilian passports and left on the next available flight. With their daughter waiting at home in Israel, the Ninyos were now a family of five, All questions about the legality of what they had done were rationalized by Chaim and Yael's strong belief that they had saved two tiny lives.

Harry Philips is a documentary producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's nightly current affairs program - The Journal. This article reflects some of the research conducted during his production of the award-winning CBC-Television documentary Black-market Babies.

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