One of the joys of parenthood is to bear offspring, and one method of achieving this is through surrogacy, and it has gained much popularity across the globe including Nigeria. While surrogacy, and other methods of assisted reproductive services, offer a lot of hope to intended parents, many fertility clinics, surrogate agents, and young women have turned it into a transactional affair and above all as an avenue to earn an income albeit illicitly.
To unearth the illegitimate practices beneath surrogacy in Nigeria, I posed as a mother of one who wants to be a surrogate to unsuspecting agents, who leverage the digital media to promote their ‘businesses’ online. During this mission, I saw firsthand the risks faced by young women who become surrogate or egg donors and the unethical methods employed by some fertility clinics.
‘Underground’ Online Surrogacy Network
In the digital underground world of this illicit act, different Facebook groups offering different services to the surrogacy community, while some are basically seeking donors and surrogates, some others are providing support systems for women who are surrogates or considering surrogacy as an option for their fertility challenges.
To start this journey, I created another Facebook account with the name ‘Patience Chris’, in April 2023, and within the first two weeks, I posted content about food, my supposedly carefree attitude to life, and my desire to make money at all cost.
I joined two groups Surrogate Mums in Nigeria (private) and Egg donor and surrogate mothers in Nigeria (public). After joining, I couldn’t ignore the numerous advertisements and requests for surrogates and bleeding donors with enticing remuneration. Each advert had a standard procedure, it came with requests for specific requirements, either age bracket, genotype, complexion, location, etc. A major requirement that was also listed was for surrogates to have given birth in the past.
Other elements of the various posts ranged from juicy offers of 1 million to 1.5 million Naira for surrogates, excluding feeding, accommodation, and wardrobe allowances, while egg donors were to get between 100,000 to 180,000 Naira, aside their transportation allowance.
The next step I took was to post on the groups that I was a willing surrogate and currently resided in Lagos State, and also made myself available to different ‘agents’ who needed surrogates in Lagos. The conversation always took place under the veil of private messages (DM).
A little while after our conversation and juicy promises, my agent invited me to a fertility clinic (name undisclosed) to meet Nurse Oluchi. She then advised that I pay a visit to the clinic at a time I will be menstruating, I wasn’t sure why and I didn’t seek further clarification.
Infiltrating the clandestine world of surrogacy brokers
On Saturday, May 20, I visited the address, in the company of two female friends, not just for the purpose of acting as surrogate and foetus donor respectively, but for some form of protection in the event anything went wrong, ironically none of them was a security operative.
Upon arrival at the looking newly-built storey building with cream and chocolate brown colour, the mention of ‘Nurse Oluchi’ opened the gate for us, and the security officer at the gate directed us to go through the side of the building to a small room.
There was no signpost or anything to indicate that the building was a hospital or a fertility clinic. As such, I became a bit scared, but when we entered the room, we saw ladies roughly between the ages of 17 – 25, in their numbers, waiting to be attended to. The room was so full that I had to stand and my other friends sat outside.
The ladies we met grinned at the sight of us because we obviously looked like ‘Jolly just come’ (a term used for those who are new to a place) in the surrogacy business, they had a lot to share with us, but we wanted to meet Nurse Oluchi.
There was no one to point us to Nurse Oluchi and when I told my ‘agent’ via Facebook Messenger that I had arrived at the clinic, she advised me to wait at the sitting area and that I would be attended to.
While waiting: the desperation and vulnerability of young women enticed into donation
While we were waiting for Nurse Oluchi, nurses kept coming into the room through a different door that linked to the inner part of the hospital. No one ever gets to that part, except upon being invited for a test or hormone injections.
When the three of us eventually sat down, because some ladies had been attended to and left already, we heard the stories of ladies who had taken egg donation and surrogacy as a profession, an opportunity to live a ‘soft life’ or a quick fix to their immediate financial needs.
Monica James, a single mother of one, was receiving treatment as a surrogate mother for the second time. According to her, she needed to fend for her child who looked less than 18 months.
“My daughter and I need to survive and I think this is better than prostitution or stealing. In fact, I am helping those who cannot give birth on their own,” James said.
James confessed she would rather be a surrogate than an egg donor because the money is substantial, and she is able to make use of it effectively.
Speaking about how she spent the proceeds from her first surrogacy contract, James said “the money is not paid once, and if you are not careful, you would spend everything you have before delivery. You know once someone is pregnant, there are a lot of cravings and needs, so, you have to spend from the money you have.
“Some agents also do not pay the agreed money in full because they want to take advantage of you, and you don’t have an option anymore,” she added.
She was however determined to save more for this round, as she lamented about the poor economy and her increasing needs.
On the contrary, Marvie George considered egg donation as an opportunity to make fast money and move on to other things, and of course, no one would question her about being pregnant, as it would have been the case if she was a surrogate.
Speaking in pidgin, George said “I no know why una dey do surrogacy. My own na to donate, make I comot papaapa. After like two months, I go go do another one. The money go enter my hand now now and nobody go dey ask me how I take get belle,” she explained.
George whose boyfriend was in Warri considered her actions as much better than cheating on her boyfriend to make money.
Around noon, a hijabi Yoruba lady, Aminat Ajagbe, entered the room with a lot of excitement and greetings to friends and colleagues that she met in the business. She was full of energy, she sat beside me and started interacting with her friends with whom they had earlier started the treatment together.
They came to receive their intramuscular injection as they were almost set for retrieval (when the eggs were ready for harvesting) and that meant they could be in the clinic for up to 72 hours for the retrieval process to take place.
Ajagbe had just written her JAMB examination in early May, but was unwilling to share why she wanted to donate her eggs, whether for the money or for any other purposes. It was however clear that it was not a soothing decision for her as she complained about the distance from her house in Ikotun to the clinic in FESTAC town.
Victoria Obi, who sat quietly in a corner all along, became agitated when one of the nurses gave her the same pill she claimed to have used in the last 28 days.
Obi recounted that the Nurse instructed her to visit the hospital when she menstruated, but the Nurse insisted that Obi was supposed to visit the hospital before her next menstruation as the stimulation medication was meant to prevent her from menstruating.
After a long argument and intervention from Obi’s agent who spoke with the Nurse, she was attended to and it was agreed that she would henceforth proceed to the next stage.
Unlike James and George, Obi is working with a Chinese firm in Ikeja and lives in Ikorodu, so she wants to use her gains from the egg donation to rent an apartment somewhere close to her office.
Even though it is not certain that less than 200,000 Naira can get a suitable accommodation within that location, Obi believes she is better than her friends that are donors all because they want to buy an iPhone or live pretentious sophisticated lifestyles.
NEXT: The subsequent parts of this report will reveal the identity of the fertility clinic and how it operates without registration or accreditation. The harrowing accounts of surrogates and donors will also be narrated revealing health risks, emotional trauma, and lack of informed consent.
Editor’s Note: All the names of the donors in this story are not real names, to protect the identity of the ladies.
This report was supported by the Wole Soyinka Center for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its Report Women! Female Reporters Leadership Programme (FRLP), champion building edition.