Trading babies

In attempting to sell her baby on the internet, Moira Greenslade unwittingly revealed disturbing loopholes in Britain's surrogacy laws. Kate Hilpern reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There is little doubt that Moira Greenslade would have had to face the law courts eventually. Sentenced last month to two years in prison as a result of attempting to sell her unborn baby to three different couples over the internet, she never had much chance of keeping her deception secret. But her case has revealed something more sinister - that buying and selling children online may still be possible in the UK, despite all the legislation in place to prevent it.

Alan and Judith Kilshaw, the couple who were at the centre of the internet twins case, first made legal reforms a political priority back in 2000. The case brought the issue into the nation's homes. Everyone had a view on whether or not the couple, who paid an £8,200 fee to adopt twin sisters over the internet, were fit to be parents. Tabloid tales of their bizarre lifestyle opened the public's eyes not only to the fact that there was a trade in infants over the net, but to its repercussions - that people quite unsuitable to be parents could essentially purchase a ready-made family from overseas.

Indeed, while the Kilshaw case may have received the most media attention, it was just one in a number of cases coming before the courts, exposing a significant loophole in adoption laws. People had learnt that a private home study report by an independent social worker was basically a ticket to getting past overseas authorities. The changes to UK intercountry adoption laws, brought in almost immediately after the Kilshaw case, banned the use of these privately commissioned home study reports, and also made it illegal to bring a child into the UK for adoption.

More recent legislation has further tightened the potential for buying and selling children on the net. The Adoption (Bringing Children into the UK) Regulations 2003 mean that all prospective adopters in the UK must now be assessed as eligible and suitable by a UK adoption agency, regardless of where they want to adopt from. Meanwhile, the Intercountry Adoption (Hague Convention) Regulations 2003 require that intercountry adoptions take place only in the best interests of the child, and establishes a mechanism for co-operation between countries to prevent the abduction, sale and trafficking of children.

Allan Levy, QC, who represented the Kilshaws in their courtroom battle to keep the twins, describes the changes as a "very progressive, if delayed, step. Prior to the new regulatory framework, the situation was a bit like the Wild West, where anything went," he says. "I've had cases where you could never discover exactly where the child came from - perhaps some war zone in El Salvador - and one suspected that children were being kidnapped or bought. The couples often used the internet to get the children, and expected UK authorities to let them bring the child to the UK for adoption, which they can no longer do."

What Moira Greenslade's case shows, however, is that people may have found an alternative way of selling and buying babies online. And the irony is that, with tightened laws on overseas adoption, they are turning back to their own country.

In short, Greenslade used a surrogate mothers' website as the means by which to sell her baby. The first of the three couples from whom she accepted money were the Johnsons, who handed over a sperm sample and believed that Greenslade had used it to make herself pregnant. The couple then received an e-mail from Greenslade saying that she was pregnant, although she said the father was another man. The couple nevertheless agreed to continue with the surrogacy agreement.

Later, five months into the pregnancy, Greenslade placed a second advertisement on the website, this time offering her unborn baby for adoption. She was contacted by couple number two, the Robinson-Hudsons, and couple number three, the Rashleys. Both men agreed to lie by signing an agreement stating that they were the natural father, when they knew Greenslade was heavily pregnant. Realising that she could not continue indefinitely to promise the baby to all three couples, Greenslade cancelled her agreements with the first two couples. But the Robinson-Hudsons contacted social services and a police inquiry was launched. In court, Greenslade admitted three charges of obtaining a total of £2,500 by deception, and three charges of breaching the Adoption Act.

It is not illegal to offer surrogate-mother services, and every year, hundreds of childless couples search for potential partners on the net. However, the baby that Greenslade offered for adoption had no blood relation to the prospective parents, meaning that she was, in effect, selling her child online. And this, says Felicity Collier, of the British Association for Adoption & Fostering, is very worrying. "The case exemplifies the potential loophole by which people can pretend to be the birth parent of someone else's child, and then adopt that child with their partner," she says.

More specifically, couples may be using websites such as that used by Greenslade to do a deal whereby they put their name on a birth certificate of a child who is not theirs to gain access to it. "I don't know how prevalent it is," she says, "but there's clearly a risk, and the danger is that people who are unsuitable to be in contact with children may be gaining that contact." This risk was increased in December last year, she says. "New regulations came in that mean that the person named as the father on a birth certificate has automatic parental responsibility. Previously, the two were separate."

Carol O'Reilly, founder of Surrogacy UK, points out that most surrogacy cases do not involve adoption, but that this doesn't mean that the loophole disappears. "Once the birth certificate is completed, the commissioning couple can apply for a Parental Order, avoiding adoption altogether. But the surrogate mother still could, if she wanted, claim the commissioning father was the true father when in fact he wasn't."

She believes that the solution lies in the courts making greater use of their right in surrogacy - and, indeed, adoption - cases to ask for a DNA test to prove the parentage of the child. "The problem is that it doesn't very often happen. Usually, the court just takes people's word for it," she explains.

She also believes that action should be taken against those such as Greenslade's victims, who are willing to buy a baby online under the cloak of surrogacy. "One was quick to publicly call for tighter laws to control surrogacy, but forgot to mention that she had acted illegally herself."

Felicity Collier agrees. "I am surprised at the decision not to prosecute the couples. I have the greatest sympathy for people who can't have birth children, but that isn't a good enough reason to make a private adoption arrangement by pretending to be a child's genetic relative," she says.

At the other end of the spectrum, Shirley Zagar, director of the American Organization of Parents Through Surrogacy, argues that laws should be loosened. "It's because the UK doesn't have 'surrogacy-friendly' laws that people are driven to take risks on the net," she says. Not everyone believes that there is a problem, however. Katherine Gieve, a partner in the family department of law firm Bindmans, describes Greenslade's case as "pie in the sky". "Eventually, the case would have come to light. I don't think it proves any wider problem. Parental and adoption orders are thorough, not a rubber-stamp operation."