Thailand is cracking down on a thriving but legally dubious industry where infertile foreign couples pay Thai women to bear children.
Any foreigners leaving Thailand with children born to surrogate mothers here must now produce a court order verifying legal custody.
That was confirmed Friday to VOA by the chief of Immigration Bureau’s Division 2, police major general Suwichpol Imjairach.
This comes after the leader of the military junta governing Thailand said negative publicity about surrogacy babies has led to the country being portrayed in a bad light. That prompted General Prayuth Chan-ocha to order further restrictions, but the immigration regulation has nonetheless caught some couples by surprise.
Thailand’s foreign ministry confirmed that at least one couple, from Australia, was stopped Thursday at a Bangkok airport and prevented from leaving the country with babies born to Thai women.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reports that since Wednesday, two same-sex Australian couples and two American couples, in total, were halted at airport immigration counters in similar circumstances.
The junta -- which seized power in Thailand May 22 -- has proposed legislation to be quickly submitted to the appointed national legislative assembly that would strictly ban commercial surrogacy.
This is having an immediate chilling effect, as the chairman of the Medical Council of Thailand, Somsak Lolekha explained to VOA.
“Most doctors stopped doing this because they worry. It's not clear whether they will be put in jail or not as a criminal. We have to discuss with the government when they pass a law. It's our duty to help the infertile people to have kids,” said Somsak.
Under Thai medical regulations, surrogate mothers are only supposed to be compensated for expenses and she should be a relative of one of the potential parents.
At Thailand's Office of Prevention and Protection of Children, Youth, Elderly and Vulnerable Groups, the director general, Rarinthip Sirorat, has advice for foreign couples thinking of utilizing Thai surrogate mothers: “don't do it.”
“It has to be the relatives of the intended parents. So it is impossible for the foreign couples to have something like a close relative in Thailand,” said Rarinthip.
But the current medical regulations have allowed for surrogates not related to the genetic parents on a case-by-case basis, according to medical authorities. They say that loophole has been exploited, as the practice is so lucrative for Thai brokers and doctors. So they began marketing their services on the Internet in foreign languages to those looking for egg donors or surrogates.
This brought together fertile Thai women with many thousands of foreign couples, including gays, who cannot have their own children by conventional means.
The proposed law specifically calls for the surrogate mother to be a relative of a member of the couple seeking to have a child. No artificial insemination surrogacy would be permitted for same-sex couples or those who are not married.
Specialists in the field, including some key bureaucrats, are calling for a careful study among various interested groups before a new law is passed.
Somsak notes that if the legislation is put on a fast track it will call into question the fate of thousands of babies now being carried by Thai surrogates for foreigners.
“For those already pregnant, I think we have to help them for the sake of the baby. We have to do everything to help the child. They should go back to their genetic parents or their intended parents. And I think we have to try to help them so the parents can get that baby back to their home,” said Somsak.
Police on Thursday shut down one fertility clinic. They said the New Life IVF Clinic, located in a Bangkok high-rise building, was not licensed.
Online information on the clinic’s website, now removed, stated that the cost of a basic surrogacy service started at $30,000 - less than a third of what it would cost in the United States.
Costs in Thailand can soar to $50,000 for those requiring the donation of an egg.
Another clinic, the All IVF Center, was forced to close last week.
Critics have termed these clinics “baby factories.”
Authorities say they suspect one of the clinic’s clients was a wealthy Japanese businessman listed on 15 birth certificates as the father of babies born to surrogate mothers in Thailand.
Some of the babies have been taken out of Thailand and their apparent genetic father, 24-year-old Mitsutoki Shigeta, flew out of the country recently.
The co-founder of one fertility center, Mariam Kukunashvili, is quoted by the Bangkok Post as saying she turned away Shigeta after providing for him two surrogate mothers simultaneously because “he wanted more and more babies.”
Authorities say they have informed Shigeta’s lawyer that they desire to speak with the Hong Kong-based Japanese entrepreneur, although he has not been charged with any crime.
Media reports here says police want to question Shigeta as part of their probe into possible trafficking of children.
Meanwhile, two doctors are under scrutiny by the Medical Council of Thailand for involvement in a highly publicized case involving a boy born with Down syndrome. His Thai birth mother accuses the Australian surrogate parents of abandoning the boy but taking home the child’s twin sister, who was born healthy.
The children’s biological father, David Farnell, a convicted child sex offender, and his wife, Wendy, have contradicted the birth mother’s version of events. The Australian couple says doctors stated that the boy, known as Gammy, had a congenital heart condition and would not survive.
The representative in Thailand of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), Caspar Peek, said legislation should protect the rights of the child “first and foremost” and also provide protection for the surrogate mother, as well as the intended parents whose genetic material is being used.
“Once it becomes commercial then the motivations of women to accept this [commercial surrogacy] will change. You may get the wrong people into this; you may get very young girls, you may get very poor women, you may get women who are undernourished and of course that creates a risk to their health as well. And of course there are people who will make money out of this -- and then it's all not above board anymore,” said Peek.
As he put it, things become complicated when there are contracts involved.
“Contracts are often not enforceable. If you were to take a child out of Thailand, that is born by a surrogate mother without all the paperwork in order and you will take this child to Australia or to New Zealand or any other country - it's highly probable that the authorities in your home country will not accept this child,” said Peek.
The industry -- which also thrives in some eastern European countries (including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and Ukraine) -- expanded in Thailand after India last year banned such services for gay couples and required heterosexual mates to have been married for at least two years.
In addition to gay couples, Thailand is an attractive surrogacy market for Chinese and Indian parents seeking male heirs, who find most Thai clinics have no qualms about gender selection.
Additional reporting by Ron Corben.