Thailand — Soon after the first surrogate mother from this remote village gave birth, neighbors noticed her new car and conspicuous home renovations, sending ripples of envy through the wooden houses beside rice paddies and tamarind groves.
“There was a lot of excitement, and many people were jealous,” said Thongchan Inchan, 50, a shopkeeper here.
In the two years since, carrying babies for foreigners, mainly couples from wealthier Asian nations, quickly became a lucrative cottage industry in the farming communities around Pak Ok, a six-hour drive from Bangkok. Officials say at least 24 women out of a population of about 13,000 people have since become paid surrogate mothers.
“If I weren’t this old, maybe I would have done it myself,” Ms. Thongchan said. “This is a poor village. We make money by day and it’s gone by evening.”
The baby boomlet here was just one of several bizarre and often ethically charged iterations of Thailand’s freewheeling venture into what detractors call the womb rental business, an unguided experiment that the country’s military government now says it is planning to end.
Commercial surrogacy has been available for at least a decade in Thailand, one of only a handful of countries where it is allowed, and one of only two in Asia, making it a prime destination for couples in the region from countries where the practice is banned.
Officials estimate that there are several hundred surrogate births here each year, a number that does not include foreign surrogates, including many hired by Chinese couples, who come to Thailand for the embryo implantation then return home to carry out the pregnancy.
But a pair of recent scandals have focused scrutiny on the largely unregulated industry, raising ethical questions and prompting the government’s crackdown.
In late July, the Thai news media reported that an Australian couple who had paid a woman to carry twins returned home with only one of their children, leaving behind the other, who had Down syndrome. Pleas for assistance by the surrogate mother helped produce a sustained national outcry that was further stoked by comments by the boy’s biological father that were deemed insensitive at best.
The father, David John Farnell, told an Australian television program that he would have preferred that the pregnancy had been terminated. “I don’t think any parent wants a son with a disability,” he said.
He also said that he and his wife had told the agency in Bangkok that served as an intermediary to “give us back our money.”
The Australian news media raised questions about his fitness as a father after finding court records showing that he was convicted and imprisoned for 22 counts of child sex abuse in the 1990s.
More recently, police raids on surrogacy clinics in Bangkok uncovered the case of a Japanese man who had fathered around a dozen babies through surrogates — the exact number is not known — whose births were only weeks or months apart. Last week the global police agency, Interpol, said it had begun an investigation into the motives and background of the Japanese man.
Commentators have lamented that Thailand, which already had a reputation for prostitution, was now becoming, as one television anchor called it, the “womb of Asia.”
Others described surrogacy as the exploitation of the weak and poor by wealthy couples from more developed nations.
“This is a symbol of moral erosion,” said Kaysorn Vongmanee, the head of the public health department in Pak Ok. “It’s a symbol that people are concerned above all with money.”
Thai officials say surrogates are paid about $10,000 for a successful pregnancy, more for twins, in addition to a monthly allowance of around $450 and free lodging in Bangkok, where the women are either instructed or choose to carry out their pregnancies.
In the surrogacy cases around Pak Ok, the commissioning parents were mostly from Japan and other wealthier Asian nations, Ms. Vongmanee said.
The surrogates, some of whom are still pregnant, fled to the anonymity of Bangkok last week when officials and a phalanx of the Thai news media descended on the area to publicize what they portrayed as a national scandal. The village is quiet now, with children and chickens scampering along the dirt road that winds along the edge of a steep, bamboo-covered mountainside.
Among the villagers, there is sympathy for the surrogates and anger at what is seen as a witch hunt by the authorities for women who took part in a practice that is not yet illegal.
“There’s nothing wrong with surrogacy — you are helping people who can’t have a baby,” said Pakson Thongda, 42, whose daughter twice sold eggs to a fertility clinic for about $1,000 each time. “I understand the feeling of a mother who really, really wants a child.”
The surrogacy business in Thailand has provided a low-cost alternative to the United States, the world’s largest paid surrogacy destination, and was an outgrowth of the country’s effort to promote itself as a destination for medical tourism. The Thai industry also benefited from regulations in India, which prohibit same-sex couples from hiring surrogate mothers. India is the only other Asian country where surrogacy is legal.
Commercial surrogacy has operated in a legal gray area. There are no laws banning it, but there are some hurdles. Thai law defines a mother as the person who gives birth, so in order for the biological parents to gain custody, the surrogate mother must renounce her parental rights — a concession that may require legal wrangling.
The police investigations and the pending law have left a number of foreign couples wondering whether they will be able to bring their surrogate babies home. One Australian couple, unable to complete the legal procedures for twins born in July by a Thai surrogate, have been raising funds on the Internet to help pay for the legal costs.
The authorities in Australia have requested that the Thai junta allow “transitional arrangements,” before the law banning commercial surrogacy comes into effect.
The law, which the junta has vowed to pass soon through its rubber-stamp Parliament, would still allow surrogacy, but without payment. Surrogacy brokers and advertising offering surrogacy services would be banned.
The junta has not publicly explained its decision, but Sriamporn Salikoop, a senior Supreme Court judge, said the ban was needed to prevent exploitation of Thai surrogates.
“Giving birth to a human is not like breeding animals,” he told a Thai newspaper.
Thai Rath, the Thai newspaper that first published the news about the baby with Down syndrome, said in an editorial on Monday that the surrogacy law was well intended but likely only to push surrogacy “underground.”
“People will carry it out illegally and out of sight — and may resort to human trafficking or kidnapping to get children out of the country,” the paper said.
Poypiti Amatatham contributed reporting from Bangkok, and Michelle Innis from Sydney.
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