A Black Market in Children

Science, technology, and life.
April 6 2009 10:23 AM

A Black Market in Children

If the government stopped you from bearing a child, would you buy one instead?

Before you say no, look at what's happening in China, as reported by Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times :

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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The Chinese government insists there are fewer than 2,500 cases of human trafficking each year, a figure that includes both women and children. But advocates for abducted children say there may be hundreds of thousands. Sun Haiyang, whose son disappeared in 2007, has collected a list of 2,000 children in and around Shenzhen who have disappeared in the past two years.

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Where are all these kids going?

[M]ost of the boys are purchased domestically by families desperate for a male heir, parents of abducted children and some law enforcement officials who have investigated the matter say. The demand is especially strong in rural areas of south China, where a tradition of favoring boys over girls and the country's strict family planning policies have turned the sale of stolen children into a thriving business.

The family-planning policy fines most couples who bear more than one child:

[I]n many rural areas, including Anxi County, a resident whose first child is a daughter is allowed to have a second. Having a third child, however, can mean steep fines as high as $5,800 and other penalties that include the loss of a breadwinner's job. A boy, by contrast, can often be bought for half that amount, and authorities may turn a blind eye if the child does not need to be registered as a new birth in the locale. In some cases, local officials may even encourage people desperate for a son to buy one. After their 3-month-old son died, Zhou Xiuqin said, the village family planning official went to her home and tried to comfort her and her husband, who was compelled to have a vasectomy after the birth of the boy, their second child. "He said, 'Don't cry, stop crying, you can always buy another one,' " Ms. Zhou recalled.

And that's just what the couple did. They bought a 5-year-old boy for $3,500.

This is what happens when you block legal access to what people desperately want: You create a black market. That's true of drugs , abortions , and even children. The black-market problem doesn't settle any of these policy questions. But before deciding on the policy, you had better take it into account.

Some Chinese parents are trying to defeat the human traffickers by catching kidnappers on surveillance video. Other activists are "agitating for the establishment of a DNA database for children." One activist tells Jacobs, "If the government can launch satellites and catch spies, they can figure out how to find stolen children."

Can a totalitarian regime of cameras, DNA databases, and forced vasectomies stop a black market in children? I don't know. But it sure can start one.

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