Surrogacy remains a lure for Cambodia's poorest despite ban

June 19, 2017

Peeling a mango inside her rickety wooden shack, Chhum Long explains how her daughter's decision to nurture a Western couple's baby in her womb helped her family buy two desperately needed items: a metal roof and a motorbike.

Last year a broker appeared outside the 60-year-old's house in Cambodia's southern Takeo province and offered her daughter $10,000 to be a surrogate mother for a wealthy foreign couple.

"My daughter immediately agreed with the offer because we are very poor," she told AFP. "They took the baby away as soon as he was born, she did not even see his face."

An ongoing trial in Phnom Penh of Australian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles on charges of running an illegal surrogacy business has shone a spotlight on Cambodia's role in the rented womb trade.

It is a little-regulated industry that pairs wealthy foreign couples desperate for a child—paying as much as $50,000—with some of the world's most vulnerable women.

The enterprise has sparked a regulatory game of cat and mouse as poorer nations move to halt the trade only to see it resurface or appear across their borders.

One-by-one countries that had been popular surrogacy destinations like India, Nepal and Thailand have banned the trade.

Cambodia did the same in November. But interviews conducted by AFP suggest the industry remains, albeit in the shadows.

Cambodia is one of Asia's poorest countries with an average annual income of just $1,150. Nine months of surrogacy might bring in as much as nine years salary.

'Keeping it quiet'

The village of Puth Sar, where Chhum Long and her daughter hail from, is a typical target.

Its bucolic charm—wooden houses surrounded by green paddy fields an hour south of the capital—belies an entrenched poverty.

Village chief Ouk Savouen said brokers first appeared two years ago. At least 13 women have agreed to be surrogates since then, some after the ban came in.

"There are now four surrogates who are currently pregnant but they keep it quiet," he said. "They were recruited in February and March."

The village chief dislikes the trade, saying it is exploitative and rarely provides families with the kind of riches they think will free them because the payments are mostly frittered away.

But he also recognises it is hard for women to turn down the offer of such large sums.

"I just want them to be fully paid and cared for," he said, suggesting careful regulation is better than an outright ban.

No surrogate mother in Puth Sar was willing to speak when AFP visited.

But two recent surrogates from other Cambodian villages agreed to talk on the condition that only their nicknames were used.

Both were driven by poverty but said they had broadly positive experiences.

Champei got pregnant before the ban, giving birth in April to a boy for a Dutch couple. She was paid $10,000, which was used to purchase a plot of land.

"This is a lot of money for me," she said.

"I want to be a surrogate mother again so I can build a home," she said, adding that other women from her village were also surrogates.

'I miss her'

Romduol, 35, makes just $200 a month as a garment factory worker in Kampong Speu province.

She heard about surrogacy through her colleagues and gave birth to a baby girl for a gay Australian couple before the ban.

"The Australians were so happy with the baby," she said. "I still consider her my child. I miss her because she had been in my womb for more than nine months."

She used the money to pay off debts.

"But I have not fulfilled my dream yet. If possible I want to be a again because I need a house," she said.

Cambodian government officials, however, say the ban was necessary.

"Cambodia is still poor but we don't want to use surrogacy to reduce poverty among our people," Chou Bun Eng, who heads an anti-human trafficking committee at the Ministry of Interior, told AFP.

"Otherwise Cambodia will become a factory to produce babies for sale".

The November ban came in the form of a government edict. But there has yet to be a law passed specifically outlawing the trade, leaving it in a legal grey area.

Chou Bun Eng said the government was drafting legislation but provided no timeframe.

Back at Puth Sar, Chhum Long admits the money from her daughter's surrogacy has not rescued them from poverty.

After burning through monthly cash instalments dealt out during the pregnancy and spending much of the remaining money on paying off debts, there wasn't enough to buy the new house they had hoped for.

"We are still poor," she shrugs and then grins. "But if they selected older women, I'd want to be a surrogate too."

Explore further: Cambodia to allow foreigners to leave with surrogate babies

Related Stories

Cambodia to allow foreigners to leave with surrogate babies

April 3, 2017
The Cambodian government is set to allow foreign couples to return home with babies conceived to surrogates before the 'womb for rent' business was banned last year, an official said Monday.

Cambodia bans booming commercial surrogacy industry

November 3, 2016
Cambodia has become the latest country to issue a ban on commercial surrogacy after curbs on the industry in other parts of the globe sparked a local boom in the unregulated baby business.

Indian IVF doctors slam move to ban commercial surrogacy

August 25, 2016
Leading Indian fertility doctors and surrogate mothers Thursday criticised a move to ban commercial surrogacy, saying it will severely limit options for childless couples and women who carry others' babies as a way out of ...

Thailand bans commercial surrogacy for foreigners, singles

August 7, 2015
Thailand, once a top choice for would-be parents around the world who were seeking a surrogate, has narrowed the choices for people looking to hire a woman to carry a fetus in her womb.

Thai parliament votes to ban commercial surrogacy (Update)

November 28, 2014
Thailand's parliament has voted to ban commercial surrogacy after outrage erupted over the unregulated industry following a series scandals including the case of an Australian couple accused of abandoning a baby with Down's ...

India moves to ban booming commercial surrogacy business

August 24, 2016
India's government Wednesday approved plans to ban the booming commercial surrogacy industry, a move that would block thousands of foreign couples who flock to centres to have a baby.

Recommended for you

Pickled in 'cognac', Chopin's heart gives up its secrets

November 26, 2017
The heart of Frederic Chopin, among the world's most cherished musical virtuosos, may finally have given up the cause of his untimely death.

Sugar industry withheld evidence of sucrose's health effects nearly 50 years ago

November 21, 2017
A U.S. sugar industry trade group appears to have pulled the plug on a study that was producing animal evidence linking sucrose to disease nearly 50 years ago, researchers argue in a paper publishing on November 21 in the ...

Female researchers pay more attention to sex and gender in medicine

November 7, 2017
When women participate in a medical research paper, that research is more likely to take into account the differences between the way men and women react to diseases and treatments, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.

Drug therapy from lethal bacteria could reduce kidney transplant rejection

August 3, 2017
An experimental treatment derived from a potentially deadly microorganism may provide lifesaving help for kidney transplant patients, according to an international study led by investigators at Cedars-Sinai.

Exploring the potential of human echolocation

June 25, 2017
People who are visually impaired will often use a cane to feel out their surroundings. With training and practice, people can learn to use the pitch, loudness and timbre of echoes from the cane or other sounds to navigate ...

Team eradicates hepatitis C in 10 patients following lifesaving transplants from infected donors

April 30, 2017
Ten patients at Penn Medicine have been cured of the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) following lifesaving kidney transplants from deceased donors who were infected with the disease. The findings point to new strategies for increasing ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.