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Sunday 20 September 2009

When babies become the new celeb handbags

There can be terrible consequences when children are seen as a commodity, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Another day, another ethical dilemma for those of us who worry about such matters: should Elton John, 62, and his long-time partner David Furnish, 46, be permitted to adopt Lev, a 14-month-old HIV-positive boy with whom Elton fell in love a week ago while on a philanthropic mission to a Ukrainian orphanage? Bars and blogs of the world are alive with discord.

There are innumerable arguments against. Elton is too old, the local law decrees that adoptive parents should be under 45; he is temperamental and given to childish tantrums; the local church and hence the culture from which Lev comes considers homosexuality a sin and same-sex marriages beyond the pale; it is unfair that because of his wealth he may be able to circumvent the law; and the falsity of the celebrity world is one in which even many natural children come a cropper.

And then there's the whole issue of the effect of the present fever surrounding celebrity adoptions on the countries from which they adopt. It's not that such adoptions are new. From 1970, Mia Farrow roamed the world to adopt the 11 she added to her biological four, and Julie Andrews and Yul Brynner were among those adopting Vietnamese orphans in the Seventies.

But those were the days when you sat in your hovel knowing nothing about what was happening in the world. Nowadays, millions know about Madonna's attempts to adopt a second child from Malawi and that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are amassing a varied collection.

When poor people know that children are a commodity, there can be terrible consequences. In India, there are still parents who will cripple children to make them more pitiable when they beg from prosperous tourists. The high profile of the child-hunting celebs has brought to the attention of the hungry parts of the world that -- because of contraception, abortion and the removal of the stigma of illegitimacy -- there is an acute shortage of adoptable healthy babies in the West.

There are decent adoption agencies in poor countries who find children who need parents, but there are many unscrupulous agents who acquire children through bribery, intimidation or even kidnapping. Frequently, children in orphanages turn out to have had living parents so poor they've had to put them into care. Surely, the argument goes, the wealthy would be better employed subsidising the parents rather than snatching their children? Indeed, Lev has a mother, though she is thought to be HIV positive.

So plenty of cons there. Yet there's one big pro that seems to trump it. It's hard to imagine that were Lev to grow up poor and unloved in care, he would be thrilled to find he had been refused the chance of being brought up in the luxurious homes of a much-loved and hugely talented multi-millionaire. It would be small comfort to know he had been sacrificed on principle.

This seems to have occurred to the originally hostile Ukrainian Families Minister, who now suggests that Elton become Lev's guardian but invites his mother and elder brother to visit him in Britain and -- by implication -- looks after them. Could this be related to the enormous sums of money Elton is pouring into Ukrainian orphanages? You betcha.

There are plenty more celebrity ethical dilemmas to while away our empty hours, and they matter, because the world follows where they lead. Are we, for instance, happy that in celeb world it is a given that a child is equally well off with single-sex as with heterosexual couples? How do we feel about Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex and the City fame and her husband Matthew Broderick having twins by a surrogate mother? With, allegedly, someone else's eggs?

Do we feel a ripple of alarm that children seem to have become a must-have accessory? When did we last hear someone rich and famous say they have to come to terms with being childless, since they are unable to procreate? Are babies the new handbags? How have we got into the position that we take these people seriously and that many follow their moral example?

I suppose having to worry about such issues beats being told how to think by Father Jack.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards