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Whose twins are they anyway?

January 22, 2001
Web posted at: 2:29 p.m. EST (1929 GMT)

by Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

Six-month twin girls born in St. Louis, Missouri, have a problem that many children would envy -- too many people want to claim them as their own. But the unfolding saga of the twins caught in a struggle among two sets of adoptive parents and their birth mother involves five would-be parents, a growing army of lawyers and the governments of multiple states and two countries. At the policy level, it points out the unseemly practices in so-called independent adoptions and how little is currently being done to address them.

In short, the twins' birth mother, Tranda Wecker, gave birth to them in St. Louis as her marriage was breaking up. She considered placing the girls for adoption and found a California "facilitator" named Tina Johnson. Wecker agreed to place the children with a couple in San Bernardino, California -- Richard and Vickie Allen -- who had been found by the facilitator. The Allens paid Johnson $6,000 of an $8,500 fee (none of which went to the birth mother), and took custody of the girls. Wecker contacted the Allens about six weeks later and requested a visit to say goodbye to the twins and, instead of returning them to the Allens, she handed them over to Alan and Judith Kilshaw, a British couple who had paid $12,000 to the facilitator to adopt the same twins. The Kilshaws and Wecker then drove with the twins to Arkansas to finalize the adoption (Arkansas' adoption rules are among the most liberal in the nation), and the Kilshaws took the girls back to their home in northern Wales.

More parents mean more confusion

The Allens contend that all this amounts to abduction of their daughters and to complicate matters, Wecker now has reconsidered and wants the girls back. Such complicated entanglements cry out for legal resolution, and to that end the FBI is investigating the circumstances, while courts in both the United States and UK consider the various claims at issue. If the story were not already complicated enough, British social service agencies took custody of the twins after the Kilshaws returned to Wales, and placed them in foster care until the case is resolved -- the fourth set of parents the twins have had during their short lives. Can there be any good outcome to such a tortuous chain of events, and what can be done to improve a system that has so obviously failed those it supposedly serves -- the children themselves?

Selling babies or facilitating adoptions?

The easiest target in this story is the so-called adoption facilitator -- the profession that has grown along with the sanction of independent adoptions. The facilitators charge substantial sums to adoptive couples, for which they screen prospective adoptive parents and play matchmaker between them and birth parents. Little of the facilitator fees go to birth parents and what little they do get pays for travel, living and health care costs. So large sums are paid by prospective parents who hope to receive a baby. It looks, smells and sounds very much like selling babies. But even if the fees support the actual costs of facilitating adoptions, independent adoptions are available to only the fortunate few who can afford them.

Who wins, who loses?

Kilshaw claims she has become "the most hated figure in England" and must leave the country to lead a normal life. Wecker, who by all rights should determine the fate of her natural children, is caught in a tug of war that now has her children far away in a foster home in Wales. The Allens look like they lost a bidding war for the twins. And attorney Kilshaw was quoted as saying "I know it might not be moral, but by law we're in the right." With sentiments such as these, what kinds of lessons would these parents teach their children?

In all of the analysis and discussion about the case, precious little attention is being paid to what ought to matter most -- the interests of two innocent infants. Until the focus turns to the girls, this case can yield nothing but losers.

Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.


"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.


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