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Jewish World Review July 10, 2000 / 7 Tamuz, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Consumer Reports

The baby dearth --
THE WASHINGTON POST magazine cover recently featured a woman hoisting a delighted toddler into the air. It's an image of total joy. And, in this case, it happens to be the photo of an American mom and her recently adopted Russian 2-year-old.

Each year, thousands of infertile American couples search orphanages in Russia, China, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru and other nations, hoping to find infants and toddlers to adopt. The reasons are easy to understand. Though out-of wedlock births in the United States have skyrocketed in the past several decades, the number of babies available for adoption has plunged.

Only 1 percent of women with unplanned pregnancies choose adoption. Waiting lists for U.S.-born babies are legendary. Though most domestic adoptions go smoothly once a placement has been made, many couples are spooked by news reports of toddlers and even 4-year-olds being forcibly removed from adoptive families after birthparents have a change of heart.

But the decline in domestic adoptions is lamentable not principally because it denies children to infertile couples, but because it almost universally translates into more unhappy children. I've experienced the pain of infertility myself. But as wrenching as it is, there are solutions, including international adoption.

No, what is so troubling is to witness every segment of society with influence over young pregnant girls setting them up for trouble.

The Post chronicles the story of Nicole, a pretty 16-year-old from rural Maryland. Pregnant for the second time (she had an abortion at 14), she is determined to keep this baby. The 16-year-old father torments Nicole with serial infidelities -- and there is certainly no talk of marriage. He is a jobless high school drop-out. But Nicole is naive and certain he will be a "good father" just as she is sure that she, the child of a distant and cold father and a drug-abusing mother (divorced), will be a good mother. Perhaps she will, but the statistics, not to mention common sense, suggest otherwise.

The parents of both teen-agers suggested to Nicole that she place the baby for adoption. But every other signal she received reinforced both her pregnancy and her decision to raise the child. Her schoolmates treated her as a celebrity, begging for copies of her sonogram pictures. A state agency sent her a complete Thanksgiving meal and gifts at Christmas, as well as offering counselling on her legal rights and referrals for more state services after the birth of the baby. When she became too big to attend classes at her local high school, she was provided with a home tutor. Her friends threw her a baby shower.

Obviously the answer to teen pregnancy is not to throw these girls out on the street. But we have to be very careful not to make teen motherhood seem attractive. Girls are hard-wired to want babies. It is society's job to instill patience (usually by stern stigmas against illegitimacy).

Nicole said she could "never" place her baby for adoption. Yet adopted children do so much better in life than children raised by single parents.

They do far better in school, are much less likely to be depressed or suffer other mental illnesses, have fewer behavioral problems and repeat grades far less often.

In fact, a Search Institute study of adolescents found that adoptees scored better on every measure of wellbeing than chidren raised by single parents and those raised by grandparents. The only group to score better than adoptees was biological children raised in intact families, and the difference, noted Anu Sharma of the Search Institute, was like that "between an A and an A-minus." Teen-agers who do put their babies up for adoption also have far better life prospects than those who become mothers.

Even if Nicole and the half million other unwed girls who gave birth last year knew this, it probably would not change their minds. They want these babies. And they want them for all the wrong reasons. It is these young mothers who need mothering themselves. They hope to find, in the complete dependency and adoration of a baby, what they are missing.

It seems doubtful that the stigma against premarital sex will return with its former authority. But at least we can remind girls, at every step of the process, what a wise, unselfish and moral thing it is to place a child for adoption.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate