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The Baby Trade : Where There is Crushing Poverty in the Third World and a Baby Shortage in the First, Children Become a Commodity

December 16, 1990|Mary Jo McConahay

SUZANNE LIPPS, slim and striking in a strapless blue swimsuit, raises her new baby high in joy against a fiery opal sky. In the distance, dry hills cry out for the rainy season to begin. But here, alongside a shimmering hotel pool, a waiter named Francisco serves a river of iced tea to Suzanne and her friends, parched from hours of talking among themselves and cooing to the dark-eyed infants they hold and rock and watch.

Among the women, all from the United States, 38-year-old Suzanne looks the freshest; she is the latest arrival. Four months from now, she will still be here--wiser, tired, a bona-fide citizen of the dark world of confusion and distress that becomes familiar ground to those who come to Honduras to adopt the children they cannot have at home.

Today, however, Suzanne can still joke charmingly about her first night as a mother. She was suffering allergic reactions from the shots "for everything" a doctor prescribed before her trip to Central America. Shortly after Suzanne checked in, an assistant to the Honduran lawyer engaged by her stateside adoption agency appeared, like a neighbor from the welcome wagon, and handed over 27-day-old Gabrielle.

"I woke up that night in the dark, thinking, 'What am I going to feed her?' (Enfamil with iron, it turned out, in the kitchenette.) Then I thought, 'I had such a wonderful life back in Ohio. What have I done?' "

The women around her laugh.

Shirley Williams, adopting two children, is 50, and one of her three grown daughters back home is scheduled to have her own baby today. Nevertheless, here is Shirley, post-menopause, sending the bellboy out for a teething ring for 7-month-old Ali and rocking Zain, 5 months, on her knee. Shirley's new husband, only 34, wanted a family, and Shirley had cancer (and a mastectomy) less than 10 years ago. That profile, she says, would disqualify them from adopting "even in Chile and Korea."

Sue Cagle, another regular at the pool, came to Honduras out of a kind of desperation, too, "after five years of trying to have a baby and finding no way, then discovering we would need to wait five years to adopt in the States. I'll be 41 by then."

From wherever they stay in this dusty, unlovely capital city of Tegucigalpa, they come again and again to the white metal tables and lounge chairs around the pool at this hotel. On any given day, there may be two to six women like Suzanne, eating hamburgers or sunning themselves, waiting out the adoption bureaucracy, talking about their trips back and forth to the understaffed, slow-moving Social Welfare Ministry a few blocks away. For the adopting mothers, the hotel is an oasis in a desert of bewildering customs, delays and missed signals. They come here as if to a friendly club, wheeling babies in snappy strollers over cracked sidewalks or holding their infants in chic carrier packs, under the gaze of Honduran mothers who move slowly and cradle babies in their arms.

A few smoky pillars from a fire in the hills rise in the sky and spread into the atmosphere above the pool. There is silver in the hills, mined by men like Rawlings, who stops by today. Rawlings (an American who does not want his real name used) packs a gun, but he is always welcome because he reassures the women that they are saving the children they adopt from possible early death. Rawlings bears no responsibility for the babies on the laps of Suzanne and the others, but, like many foreigners--from aid-organization workers to Peace Corps volunteers--he has acted as an intermediary, unpaid he says, in placing Honduran children for adoption: 70 by his own account over the years.

"The women here who have babies close together--often they won't nurse the youngest because they've only got so much strength, so they use it to nurse a 2- or 3-year-old who is a good bet to live but is not yet sufficiently over the hump," he explains today.

Rawlings' talk of babies is interwoven with information about the depth of a silver mine and how many hours it will take to fill with water if the pumps fail. Talk of the cost of feeding a pregnant woman ("Sometimes I'll take care of them for months, and then they'll decide not to give the baby up") is mixed with talk of the price of surplus aircraft, in which he deals ("I'm looking at old Huey helicopters at half a million, but I know there are some Yugoslavian MIGs at $200,000").

Suzanne will meet others in the coming months who will say privately that adoption of babies out of the Third World is an act of charity. But Rawlings is open about it. He believes his free-lance adoption brokering rescues the "Gillette babies," so called because their uneducated mothers may slice their umbilical cords with any handy razor.

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