Inside the Underground Baby Trade in the Philippines

What is the cost of a newborn life?

Illustration: Kate Wong

“I’m 50/50 on whether to sell this baby,” says Lucia, gesturing to her swollen stomach.

She is due to give birth in two months’ time. “Filipinos don’t need to worry about finding people to buy your baby,” she says. “Once I decide, there will be a couple who’s looking on that day also.” It’s word of mouth in her neighborhood of Tondo, Manila’s largest slum.

Once the baby’s fate is decided, the buyer will meet Lucia at the hospital the day she goes into labor, and that person will leave with the baby.

Lucia is already a mother of five. Once born, this will be the second child she has sold.

Lucia’s story is personal yet symbolic of hundreds of women living in slum communities in Manila’s vast expanse and in the Philippine provinces beyond, where the underground newborn trade is thriving.

Across Southeast Asia, hundreds of newborn babies are being sold, both on- and offline for as little as 300 pesos (about $6). In the Philippines, arguably the social media capital of the world, babies are sold on Instagram, Facebook, and other channels, including outside public hospitals and from Manila’s slums, where six out of 10 women have either sold or know someone who has sold a baby, according to women in slum neighborhoods. The majority of these women are living well below the poverty line.

The Philippines is devoutly Catholic, with a culture that encourages large families; adoption is heavily stigmatized. The nation’s Catholic Church also opposes birth control, with the constitution vowing to protect the “life of the unborn from conception.” Abortion remains illegal.

The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, providing greater access to free family planning, was passed in 2012. However, after a protracted tug-of-war between church and state, the government’s budget for contraceptives was axed in 2016. The law’s implementation was further curtailed with a Supreme Court case challenging its constitutionality and a Catholic organization obtaining a restraining order against contraceptive products, which was lifted only last year.

In the Philippines, babies are sold on Instagram, Facebook, and other channels, including outside public hospitals and from Manila’s slums, where six out of 10 women have either sold or know someone who has sold a baby.

In the Philippines, an estimated 1,000 women die every year due to illegal backstreet abortions and black-market pills. An illegal abortion cocktail known as “pampa regla” can be purchased for 200 pesos (about $3) outside Quiapo, one of Manila’s most exalted churches. Vendors promise that the concoction can cause even a one-month-old human embryo to bleed out with menstruation.

The alternative is an adoption system that slum dwellers feel is discriminatory and stacked against them. Rumors of expensive and discriminatory adoption practices are rife in these neighborhoods. “You have to pay lots of fees, and they think all the mothers from Tondo are on drugs and so the babies will be addicted and they refuse us,” Lucia says.

The adoption system in the Philippines is tedious, multilayered, and highly bureaucratic; the process often takes years. “There are prospective parents who would rather buy a child than go through the inconvenience of an excessive DSWD [Department of Social Welfare and Development] adoption, which would not even be able to guarantee positive results,” says Eric Mallonga, a lawyer and former Inter-County Adoption Board (ICAB) member.

Aimee Torrefranca-Neri, undersecretary for operations at the DSWD, says, “The personal act of the biological parents to sell their child is not brought about by the system.” Critics, however, argue that the lengthy processes lead mothers and adopting couples to seek alternate options.

The sheer scale and population of Manila’s slums offer a safe haven for dealers to thrive in anonymity, working in neighborhoods where babies can be born, go missing, and never be found.

Outside Manila’s hospitals, baby agents organize deals initiated by doctors from inside the hospital walls. It is a booming business, with agents and doctors taking the bigger cut. The lack of security guards or CCTV systems means deals are rarely recorded.

Dealers are reassured that the authorities don’t have any idea of the scale of the sale of babies. “We are discreet and communicate through SMS. No need for background identification of each other. It’s just an open secret,” says Lynn, a dealer working in Navotas. Others, who chose not to go on record, say the authorities turn a blind eye: “They know that in our society, this is normal. They can’t see, they can’t hear, and if they do, they shut their mouth.”

With a lack of police supervision and action against the newborn baby trade, those like Lucia, who got pregnant and cannot raise their children, take a risk out of desperation.

This first child Lucia sold was for 10,000 pesos (about $193), back in May 2018. She kept half the money for herself, and the remaining half was split between the baby agents—dealers who arranged the sale — and the “adopting” couple.

“I gave birth to him on the street in Tondo. He was premature, at almost eight months, and he was really tiny. I was rushed to the hospital, and we stayed there for 13 days,” says Lucia, as she sits surrounded by her sleeping children in her shanty home.

The child was born with heart problems, and Lucia’s doctor advised her to give him up if she could not afford the medicine he needed. “The decision is yours: Have the baby adopted and give him a good life, or keep him and have him lose his life,” she was told. Lucia had already lost a child the previous year to acute bronchitis.

Lucia’s doctor offered to buy her baby if she could not afford her hospital bills. Lucia refused and borrowed money from a friend to pay her bills. When the child was three months old, Lucia sought the help of one of her neighbors, 43-year-old Mercy, who also happened to be a dealer, or baby agent. Mercy connected Lucia with a Filipino couple in Palawan who own a fish-farming business and have adopted children before. The couple cannot conceive on their own.

But there is one caveat: Sometimes the prospective new parents turn down the baby. “If the baby doesn’t look how they want, they will refuse it,” Lucia says.

Lynn is a dealer working with babymakers in Navotas and says foreign men have sexual intercourse with babymakers to make blue-eyed babies, which are easier to sell, and at a higher price. “Outside the hospital, they sell them to wealthy buyers,” sometimes for 100,000 pesos (about $1,938). Mercy, Lucia’s agent, who is Catholic and pro-life, is always available to assist. “One three-months’ pregnant woman was considering abortion, but I encouraged her to give birth so we can sell it after,” Mercy says. However, she takes pains to point out that the money for her services is only casual. “I just want to help the baby to be in a good situation — in a better environment,” she says.

Once the baby is sold, there is little evidence to follow. There is no documentation of who the buyers are or where the babies eventually end up. They are essentially gone without a trace. Five people were involved in the sale: Lucia, her husband, Mercy, a middle dealer, and the buying couple.

The middle dealer sources couples and arranges transportation of the child while Mercy looks for babies to sell and organizes the deals, including the price, timing of the exchange, and the paperwork. If there is no birth certificate, one can be easily and quickly forged in Recto, Santa Cruz, Manila, and costs 500 pesos (about $7).

A photograph of Lucia’s baby was sent to the adopting couple. Documents — including a deed of sale of the baby, stating that the mother is willingly giving up her child and is aware of her actions — were prepared. Lucia was told to sign the papers immediately. Eight days later, Lucia brought the baby to an agreed spot on the highway at 10 p.m. to meet the middle dealer.

“I felt like I was at the gates of hell,” she says. “The baby was crying. I was crying as well. I couldn’t think properly. My heart was really heavy. It was heartbreaking, but I thought I was doing this for his sake.”

Lucia handed over the hospital records, birth certificate, and baby. Three days later, on May 3, the baby flew to the Philippine island of Palawan. Payment transactions followed, and the sale was complete.

In September of this year, 43-year-old Jennifer Talbot, a U.S. citizen, was charged with human trafficking in the Philippines after attempting to smuggle a six-day-old baby out of the country in her carry-on bag. Following her arrest, Talbot presented a document that she claimed gave her consent to take the baby. But the document was not signed by the baby’s mother, according to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). The baby’s mother and father have been charged under a child protection law, and the boy has been placed in the custody of social services.

When they’re not sold to adoptive parents, babies end up in illegal orphanages, which are involved in the sex trafficking trade — some even buy babies for this purpose.

Anyone caught selling babies can be charged for child trafficking under the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012. If found guilty, they will face a minimum six-year prison sentence and a fine of 50,000 pesos (about $969). Ronald Aguto Jr., chief of the NBI’s International Operations Division, says authorities are aware of the problem, yet the success stories are few and far between. “To my knowledge, my unit had rescued only one baby from the agents/sellers,” Aguto says.

Beyond the transactional drivers of baby trafficking lies a far more sinister side to the business. Child pornography, particularly the livestreamed sexual exploitation of children, is a billion-dollar industry, and the Philippines is its number one source due to its high levels of internet access, widespread knowledge of English, and rampant poverty.

When they’re not sold to adoptive parents, babies end up in illegal orphanages that are involved in the sex trafficking trade — some even buy them for this purpose. The Philippines receives at least 3,000 reports per month from other countries of possible cases of its children being sexually exploited online, the Department of Justice reports.

Illegal orphanages and fake birthing centers further complicate things. Hazel Lamberta Comerta, who works at the DSWD and ICAB, says foreign-run businesses easily circumvent the law. “There are foreign-owned foundations offering a place for mothers who have no money to give birth. They are not actually a health center, but they look legal because they have a permit from the DSWD, they are fully equipped, and they have doctors — to poor mothers, this is appealing. On top of this service, they also have an orphanage. They say, ‘If you can’t take care of the child, give the child up for adoption, and we can give the child a better life.’ Now they have an assembly line for trafficking. It’s like a factory.”

“Baby agents buy the child and then put it into the adoption system to leave a clean trail after an illegal dealing. No one can trace the crime. It’s child laundering, just like money laundering,” says Comerta, adding that social workers need to be trained to investigate. There is a loophole in the system and in how the DSWD practices from the very beginning.

“If a ‘concerned citizen’ reports to the police that they have ‘found’ a baby, the case study report will describe the child as ‘abandoned,’” Comerta says. “But where is the evidence that the mother has abandoned this child? The baby could have been kidnapped, and no one is investigating the ‘concerned citizen.’ Nobody is asking the right questions, and meanwhile, women are finding their own solution to the adoption system.”

Elizabeth Aguiling Pangalangan has been working in family law in the Philippines for 30 years and agrees that the problem may lie with the first steps taken by the DSWD, but she says social workers are overworked and underpaid, and any investigation conducted is further restricted by the law. According to Pangalangan, “Every phase of the administrative procedure is brought down to a number of days. The social workers can only work and investigate within those days before they are required to move on to the next case.”

Lucia’s second baby was born on January 13, 2019, in the Tondo hospital. Two dealers wait outside the hospital doors. One has just lost a deal — that baby was stillborn. The other waits eagerly. Lucia’s husband was not at the birth. Two weeks earlier, the police caught him with a gun, and he was sent to prison. Lucia gave birth to a baby girl. “I told him it’s a girl. He wanted a girl,” she says.

Lucia has moved houses since her husband’s arrest, fearing further trouble from the incident, and they have separated. “He has another family who he gives all his money to,” Lucia claims.

At night, Lucia goes out to collect scrap metal to sell. The earnings are not enough to singlehandedly support her growing family, and she is now in deep financial trouble. She is not alone: Scores of mothers in Manila’s slums are left as breadwinners, their partners killed or jailed amid President Duterte’s war on drugs — a war that human rights organizations estimate has led to a death toll as high as 27,000.

Slum dwellers are heavily targeted by the violence, with police anti-drug operations largely focused on poor people in slum areas like Tondo and Navotas. A lack of legal repercussions or consequences for the killings feeds a tense relationship and distrust between residents and police.

Lucia is asking for 20,000 pesos (about $388) for the child. “They [the adopters] will shoulder the hospital bill, which is at least 16,000 pesos [about $310].” On top of this, if they want to give her extra cash, she’ll accept it. She has other children to feed.

For Lucia, several buyers for her second baby have been lined up and have all fallen through. The baby is now 10 months old and struggling; she has difficulty breathing. Mercy found a couple offering 5,000 pesos (about $97), but Lucia refused the offer. Mercy says she is waiting for a foreign buyer “so she can get more money, and maybe someday they will be able to be reunited with the child — the child will be her ticket out of the Philippines.”

Meanwhile, Filipino campaigners face an uphill struggle in defending the Reproductive Health Law, pressing for its implementation and financing, and destigmatizing contraception and abortion. Underequipped and understaffed childcare institutions continue to be overwhelmed by a deluge of “abandoned” children, while few funds are allocated for psychological services. “Counseling is just to convince mothers to surrender the child,” Comerta says. “Mothers want to be supported, but child-caring institutions are only focused on the child. And after one year, we will be back at square one, matching another child from the same mother.”

“I don’t want to give birth anymore,” says Lucia, who is a single parent now. “Sometimes people say they saw him [the first child she sold] on Facebook. But I don’t know. When I look at his photograph, that’s when I start to wonder if I should find him.”

“She will carry her decision for the rest of her life. It will be in on her conscience until she dies,” Mercy says. But even if Lucia wanted to know where her child was, there is no one to ask.

The trail was cold from the start.

Investigative journalist and photographer based between Afghanistan and the Philippines • Twitter and Instagram: @LynzyBilling

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