Ownership and morality

From Steven Levitt's Freakonomics blog:

Adoptive Parents May Also Face the Decision to 'Abort': On my first trip to adopt in China, I happened to sit at a table next to another adopting couple from the United States. They were older, with no prior children, and had been assigned a three- or four-year-old girl. They seemed like very nice people. The child that was assigned to them was very headstrong. She did not want to go with her adoptive parents and proceeded to throw tantrums, screaming, throwing things and spitting on and punching them for several days. They decided they couldn’t go through with it, and the girl was returned to the orphanage. My understanding is that she would not be eligible for adoption (at least, not internationally) in the future.

The next day, the couple told me, another three-year-old was brought over from an orphanage. The first thing she did when she met them was say, in English, ”I love you, Mommy. I love you, Daddy.” The person who had transported the child from the orphanage had taught her the words. She had no idea what she was saying, but it didn’t matter. Needless to say, this little girl went home with them to New Jersey.

Almost seven years have passed since I shared breakfast with that New Jersey couple, yet I think about them often, and when I do, my eyes always fill with tears. I think about the little girl, now ten, living in a Chinese orphanage never knowing the life she missed. Should a three-year-old be punished for being attached to her caretakers in the orphanage? What if the New Jersey couple had just held out a little longer? Mostly, though, I think about how the second child learned those words in the cab, and how different her life is now because that first child put up such a fight.

Steven also links to a story in the New York Times with a different ending:

We had set our hearts on adopting a baby girl from China years before [...] We embarked on a process, lasting months, of preparing our application and opening our life to scrutiny until one day we had a picture of our daughter on our refrigerator. Fourteen months after deciding to adopt, we were in China. [...]

A CT scan confirmed that there had been a tumor that someone, somewhere, had removed. It had been a sloppy job; [...] and as Natalie grew her condition would worsen, eventually leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. Control over her bladder and bowels would go, too; this had already begun, as indicated by her loose sphincter.

Yet how could we leave her? Had I given birth to a child with these conditions, I wouldn’t have left her in the hospital. Though a friend would later say, “Well, that’s different,” it wasn’t to me.

I pictured myself boarding the plane with some faceless replacement child and then explaining to friends and family that she wasn’t Natalie, that we had left Natalie in China because she was too damaged, that the deal had been a healthy baby and she wasn’t.

How would I face myself? How would I ever forget? I would always wonder what happened to Natalie.

I knew this was my test, my life’s worth distilled into a moment. I was shaking my head “No” before they finished explaining. We didn’t want another baby, I told them. We wanted our baby, the one sleeping right over there. “She’s our daughter,” I said. “We love her.”

It’s tempting to think that our decision was validated by the fact that everything turned out O.K. But for me that’s not the point. Our decision was right because she was our daughter and we loved her.

Natalie, the 'headstrong' child assigned to the New Jersey couple and the two other, nameless, children of these stories all deserve a loving home, as do the myriad other children languishing in orphanages around the world. No words can capture the magnitude of this tragedy.

The 'morally right' decision for the adoptive parents is in no way to stick to the child the Chinese authorities initially picked for them, neither is choosing a different child an 'abortion'. The maths, unfortunately, are relentless: two children get to travel to the United States, and two children are left behind. How are the moral implications altered because of some Chinese bureaucrat's initial allocation decision?

As a species, we are probably not unique in caring for 'our own' more than we do about strangers, even when we are talking about children and 'our own' is determined by nothing more than a picture on the refrigerator. This is the way we are, but it is not a moral characteristic we should be proud of.

Steven Levitt talks about the tragedy of having to take a decision that, whichever way it goes, will leave a child in misery. He does not condemn the New Jersey couple.

But the NYT columnist does. And she is wrong.

by datacharmer | Thursday, May 17, 2007
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