Two years ago, Lynne McTaggart burst into an adoption conference I was attending, an intense young woman with note pad and tape recorder in hand. One by one, she grilled those present in staccato fashion for a book already under contract. This would be -- she confided -- a totally new kind of adoption book confronting a wide range of sensitive issues never before explored in print. I knew her solid reputation as an investigative reporter whose masquerade as a pregnant college student in 1974 helped crack an adoption-for-profit ring. I had also noticed her ads soliciting confidential collect calls about unusual adoption experiences. Surely hers was a book to watch for.
Well, the book is finally out, and what a letdown. Called "The Baby Brokers," it might better be subtitled "Marketing the Baby-selling Story." It borrows from the same accounts that catapulted McTaggart to prominence six years ago and which served as the springboard for a similar 1978 book, "Baby Selling" by Nancy Baker. McTaggart also scooped herself in "Babies for Sale," a magazine piece published last November.
In these successive exposes, a curiously consistent cast of villains reenacts a scenario that remains frozen over time. Several Washington area couples I know have contacted these very same baby brokers during the last few years, only to find them either out of the adoption business entirely or unwilling to risk involvement in an out-of-state transaction. That McTaggart's early detective work led to this wing-clipping cannot justify beating dead horses or passing off old notes as fresh scandals just unearthed.
Starting back in 1971, the book does reveal a lot of details about a supposedly real childless couple and an unwed mother (only the names have been changed) whom the author evidently got to know quite well, since she is privy to their intimate conversation, feelings and sexual couplings. All this keeps things moving right along after the fashion of a pulp romance. But once the poor protagonists fall into the clutches of Stanley Michelman, a correctly identified adoption attorney, the action bogs down, droning meticulously through the familar inventory of defunct gray-market intermediates, whose only interesting feature is their vast ingenuity for observing the letter of the law while blatantly violating its spirit. This tradition of avarice probably lives on, but McTaggart is strangely silent about the status of baby-brokering today in the wake of tighter laws.
A tacked-on introduction and conclusion pay perfunctory homage to other issues. But even here the book is outdated, indentifying 41 states as members of a child protection compact when there have been 43 members since 1978 and declaring authoritatively "there are some 400,000 children in the foster care system, at a staggering cost to taxpayers of $1.4 billion annually" when more recent estimates place the numbers above 500,000 and the cost closer to $2 billion.
Though she acknowledges arbitrary agency practices and cities reputable studies demonstrating no harm to children adopted privately, the author considers baby brokers primarily the creatures of supply and demand rather than agency shortcomings. And while extolling the virtues of adopting older and handicapped youngsters, she overlooks the barriers faced by families seeking to do just that. Nor does she mention that agency services aren't free, costing $3,000 -- plus legal fees -- for a white baby from some oldline agencies. Not entirely typical but, then, neither are baby brokers. Even in their heyday, the brokers never captured more than a small segment of the adoption market and most people, with perseverance, are still able to adopt children without exorbitant cost.
Nor is outlawing non-agency, or independent, adoptions the answer. As McTaggart herself admits, when Connecticut did this, the numbers of adoptions dropped by half. Elsewhere, anti-independent statutes have fed the black market and inadvertently cut off legitimate adoptions from overseas. And for all their potential for subversion, most independent adoptions are on the up-and-on, affording such advantages as early placement for the child, free choice of family by birth parents, and opportunity for future contact between adoptive and birth parents, an option foreclosed by agency practice. Yet for McTaggart, "The fundamental issue is not whether private adoption produces better results than agency adoption, not whether it fulfills a need not met by the traditional adoption system, not whether children are placed in loving homes, but whether, under any guise, we are going to treat people as chattel."
Readers don't deserve to be treated as chattel either. Baby-brokering is sensational, but hardly the most pressing problem in adoptions. McTaggart has talent. She should go back to the cutting room floor and produce the book she started out to write.