Baby-Selling: When Is Wrong to Sell? When Is It Right to Ban?
By Bryan Caplan
When I praised the growing division of maternal labor, the supposed reductio ad absurdum of baby selling came up. My reply:
I see nothing wrong with selling your baby – born or unborn – to loving parents.
You say, “I see nothing wrong with selling your baby – born or unborn – to loving parents.” I don’t understand your reason for the qualifier. If it is ok to sell
your baby to loving parents, is it ok to sell your baby to merely
“liking” parents, as opposed to loving parents? Is it ok to sell your
baby to someone who doesn’t want to parent the child, but who plans to
use the child for some purpose, such as labor, or spare body parts for
another child, or for sexual services?
I know why I would prohibit these transactions. I just want to hear your rationale.
Like almost everyone, I favor the prohibition of child abuse by both relatives and non-relatives, and consider someone who knowingly sells a baby to someone expected to abuse him to be an accomplice to his abuse.
What about Morse’s less frightening hypotheticals? Is is morally wrong to sell your baby to parents who merely “like” him, or who desire a household servant? If so, should these transactions be prohibited? Let’s start with moral wrongness:
1. If you reasonably expect that your baby will be better-off – for example because you’re on the edge of starvation – then selling your baby is a tragic but morally admirable sacrifice.
2. If you reasonably expect that your baby will be worse off, but still have a life worth living, and you desperately need the money (for example to feed your other kids), it might not be admirable to sell your baby, but it’s understandable and morally acceptable.
3. If you reasonably expect that your baby will be worse off, but
still have a life worth living, and you don’t desperately need the money, then it’s probably morally wrong. If I knew someone in these circumstances, I would try to convince them to keep their baby. However, it’s easy to come up with hypotheticals that leave me less than certain. Suppose a woman who doesn’t like kids deliberately gets pregnant purely in order to sell the babies to farmers who need extra help. The babies have moderately unhappy childhoods, but as a whole their lives are worth living. If the mom said, “I’m doing a lot more good for my kids than if I were childless. If voluntary childlessness isn’t morally wrong, why is my approach?,” I’d have to admit that she’s got a point.
Now what about prohibition? Moral wrongness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for prohibition, so we shouldn’t ban #1 or #2. Furthermore, the merely probable wrongness of #3 does not seem strong enough to overcome the presumption of liberty.
So that’s my response to Roback’s questions. I understand why she asks, but I’ve got to say that her hypotheticals are ultimately red herrings. In reality:
1. People who adopt babies almost always love them, whether or not they pay for them. Banning baby-selling to prevent mistreatment of children is like banning driving to prevent drunk driving.
2. In a free market, most of the baby suppliers would be poor families in the Third World, and most of the baby demanders would be much richer families in the First World. The exchanges would drastically raise babies’ well-being and chances of survival.
3. Baby-selling is a solution to abuse, not a cause. Most of the horror scenarios that Morse poses – like child prostitution – are far more likely to involve kids raised by their biological families in the Third World.
4. The same goes for child labor.