A home cleaner in Lagos, identified simply as Mariam, was forced into unplanned parenthood after a baby she thought she was assisting a United States-based couple to deliver was rejected.
She never met the couple but she agreed to be a surrogate in their journey to have a boy when a self-styled surrogacy company approached her with a N1.5 million deal.
She filled out a form without signing an agreement. When the fetus was mature enough to reveal the sex, it turned out to be a girl and the beginning of her ordeal.
The woman running the company rejected the pregnancy at 24 weeks and asked her to terminate it, promising to compensate her with N100,000.
Moments later, the company urged her not to terminate it again but keep it for another couple who may need the baby instead.
By the time the baby was delivered, the company cut all links with her, leaving her with dashed hopes and a baby to fend for. She had hoped to start a business with the proceeds expected from the plan.
Mariam is one of several poor Nigerian women who have fallen victim to exploitation in the industry that is gradually growing around the rise in popularity of surrogacy as women who face difficulty conceiving embrace the solution it brings.
But the lack of regulation has made it easier for people who run schemes for surrogacy outside the expertise of certified fertility centres to exploit young women like Mariam.
Barely educated women who don’t understand the nitty-gritty of agreements are being targeted and often left to grapple with raising children who are not theirs, in their desperation to beat poverty.
According to Finance Uncovered, on average, six newborn babies a month were brought into the United Kingdom last year by British parents returning from surrogacies in countries such as Nigeria and Georgia, where poverty and maternal mortality rates are much higher.
Britain’s Court Advisory Support Service CAFCASS figures suggest this pattern has a well-trodden route for parents who cannot find a surrogate in the UK and cannot afford a US surrogacy.
The number of British parents travelling to countries for surrogacy where poverty is higher rose from 19 in 2014 to 96 in 2021, before dipping slightly in 2022 because of the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
In that nine-year period, British parents have sought UK parental orders for at least 570 babies born to surrogates from such countries, CAFCASS figures show. These include 201 born to surrogates in Ukraine, 182 in India, 80 in Georgia, 33 in Nigeria, and 26 in Thailand.
“There is a lot happening in that space that we need to start shining light into. The legal system is always slow to catch up with some of these inventions. It is when the need arises that the law wakes up. Some of the people offering the service are not in healthcare. The only thing that can protect is the laws. In Thailand, they have banned foreigners from doing surrogacy in their country. I think it is the people that will force the government to make laws for some of these things,” Abayomi Ajayi, managing director and chief executive of Nordica Fertility Centre, told BusinessDay.
The medical doctor was part of a team that brainstormed on the surrogacy bill being pushed at the Lagos State Assembly.
He recommends that a surrogacy law protects the surrogate; spelling out the obligations of the surrogate to the commissioning couple; the duty of the commissioning party to the surrogate, and the capacity requirement for a health facility to offer the service.
Inibehe Effiong, a human rights lawyer, said in an interview with BusinessDay that the reason abuses go unchecked is that there are no laws on surrogacy in Nigeria particularly shielding surrogate mothers.
Last year, he raised the alarm over attempts to illegally seize a set of male twins from a surrogate, Gift Solomon, after an American couple – Shullam Onyemaobi and Gamaliel Onyemaobi – allegedly reneged on the terms of their agreement.
Shullam, who is Solomon’s aunt, approached her to be a surrogate mother for them and she agreed on the terms that they would secure an American Visa for her and ensure that she relocates to the US where they would sponsor her through a nursing programme.
According to Effiong, they agreed to pay for her parents’ surgeries; and fully cater for her personal, antenatal, and postnatal needs and other essential needs.
He said: “After she got pregnant and put to bed, the couple abandoned her. So, on legal and moral grounds, my client has the right to keep the children. She is the biological mother of the children. There is traditional surrogacy where the carrier is also the egg donor. My client donated her eggs and we have documents to that effect. They abandoned her and never kept to the promises that they had with her.”
“They couldn’t have done this in the US. They simply went to the police and the Police sent a letter and started harassing her. They arrested her mother, sister, and brother and tortured and detained them and they did this repeatedly.”
“I have filed an action against the police on behalf of the mother at the special high court in Abuja, which is still pending. Some other actions are also ongoing which I don’t want to speak about. She has assumed full responsibility for the child,” Effiong added.
The couple refuted the claim that they tried to seize the twin, accusing Solomon of absconding with the children instead.
The husband said Solomon violated the surrogacy privacy and abstinence agreement by having sexual intercourse with her lover while carrying their babies.
Health industry analysts and lawyers are expecting a law that reduces exploitation in an industry where low-cost agencies make considerable profits by matching women in countries where poverty rates are higher, with infertile and gay commissioning parents from wealthier countries such as the UK and the US.
Commercial surrogacy in some states in the US is legal but heavily regulated. It is also expensive, costing parents upwards of $120,000, according to Finance Uncovered.
The UK, on the hand, maintains a conservative position on surrogacy.