Fleeing strict new laws at home, surrogacy companies are moving their “wombs for rent” services from Thailand to Cambodia, causing some analysts to raise concerns that would-be parents could be swindled by the little-regulated industry.
Surrogacy and assisted reproductive technology are still in a legal gray area, as they are not explicitly protected or outlawed by Cambodian law. But this legal free-for-all may not last long. Government officials yesterday told Khmer Times that they plan to classify surrogacy as a form of human trafficking.
If the government imposes new regulations, they could prevent children born to surrogate mothers from leaving the country, meaning that would-be parents could find themselves unable to bring their newborn home.
Shift from Thailand
Despite the risks, surrogacy is booming in Cambodia. Sixteen surrogacy clinics have opened in the country since the Thai government imposed strict new anti-surrogacy laws early this year. Demand from foreign couples, especially Chinese and Australian ones, is high. With other popular surrogacy destinations like Nepal and India closing their borders, Cambodia has become one of the few nations in the region open to couples seeking to have a child through surrogacy.
Surrogacy clinics, long tolerated by the Thai government, were kicked out after a pair of high-profile scandals last year. The first occurred when an Australian biological father left behind a baby born with Down’s Syndrome, while taking the boy’s healthy twin sister home to Australia.
The “Baby Gammy” case, as it came to be known, prompted further investigation into Thailand’s surrogacy industry, uncovering more sordid details. Investigators found that a Japanese businessman had fathered 16 children through different Thai surrogates, four of whom he took to Cambodia, in what local media described as a possible attempt to begin a child-trafficking ring.
In the wake of the scandals, the Thai government imposed a law banning foreign couples from seeking surrogacy in the country. Employees at companies there that provide surrogacy for profit are now faced with the threat of a 10-year prison sentence.
Many companies in Thailand’s lucrative surrogacy business have simply moved across the border into Cambodia. Last November, the Cambodian government issued a warning saying that surrogacy was illegal, but as of yet there are no formal laws banning it. A source who asked to remain confidential said that at least 20 couples from Australia alone have contracted with surrogacy companies in Cambodia.
Cambodia used to lack the high-tech equipment necessary for artificial fertilization, but the country now has modern in-vitro fertilization (IVF) equipment at several hospitals and clinics. That, combined with a lax legal system and cheap prices, draws couples to the Kingdom. Surrogacy services start at around $40,000 in Cambodia, compared to $120,000 in the United States.
“Other Asian nations have closed their borders, and the prices being offered [in Cambodia] are attractive,” said Sam Everingham, director of the Australian company Families through Surrogacy. Unscrupulous surrogacy companies can add to the appeal of Cambodia as a surrogacy destination, advertising it as a safe place to have a child while neglecting to mention the legal perils.
On its website the company Sensible Surrogacy advertises Cambodia as a perfect alternative to more expensive Western surrogacy programs, saying “Many couples are now finding that surrogacy in Cambodia is the most affordable and secure option to start their new families.”
Mr. Everingham said it is common for companies to downplay the risks. “Many of the clinics have a business model where they take advantage of being able to take clients to a country with a legal loophole,” he said, “until it’s no longer there, and then they have to move somewhere else.”
Cambodian surrogacy has in fact become so popular that the Australian tourism website, smarttraveller.gov.au, issued a warning about the possible legal pitfalls of surrogacy in the Kingdom. “Australians are advised not to visit Cambodia for the purpose of engaging in commercial surrogacy arrangements,” the site warns.
Meanwhile, the Cambodian government is scrambling to create new laws to stop the fast-growing surrogacy industry before it expands. Touch Channy, spokesman for the Ministry of Social Affairs, said that government ministries will discuss how to manage the growing numbers of surrogacy clinics. “The ministries need to work together to ensure that this case doesn’t happen in Cambodia,” he said.
Though surrogacy sites advertise Cambodia as a safe option, Mr. Everingham argues that it is anything but. “It’s highly precarious based on what we’ve seen occurring in countries that have similar laws,” he said. “Thailand, India, and Nepal have all closed their borders [to people seeking surrogacy]. It’s highly likely that Cambodia will do the same.”