Renting out wombs with eyes wide open

BANGKOK - It's hard not to have an opinion about surrogacy, especially with the intense attention polarising debate in Thailand.

While the arrangement is associated with celebrity dads like Elton John and Ricky Martin in the West, it is cast in a darker, seamier light here.

Blame it on recent scandals: The alleged abandonment of Baby Gammy, born with Down Syndrome, by his Australian biological parents who took his healthy sister instead. Or 24-year-old Mitsutoki Shigeta, a Japanese who fathered at least 16 babies through surrogate mothers in Thailand. He claimed this is part of a larger plan for a big family to run his business empire.

In another case three years ago, 15 Vietnamese women - seven of them pregnant - were rescued from a Bangkok suburb after the Taiwanese surrogacy firm which hired them took away their passports.

Seen through these lenses, surrogate mothers are poor, unschooled and often duped into renting their womb to strangers from another land. They are unaware of their rights.

Well, some of that is true.

Ms Jantra (not her real name), a 30-year-old drinks vendor who was seriously considering carrying the child of a foreign couple, recalled giving her home address and that of her parents to a surrogacy agent she had contacted on Facebook. Yet they never met and she did not even know how this agent sounded like.

When Ms Jantra backed out of the deal, she panicked, realising that the information she had given so freely now made her vulnerable to harassment.

Another woman, a 35-year-old housekeeper, gave brokers copies of her 11-year-old son's birth certificate, identity card and even school registration papers (women with children are considered more physically suitable for surrogate motherhood).

When Ms Suteera (not her real name) decided - five months into her pregnancy - to keep the baby, she had to flee with her son for fear the brokers would harm him.

At that point, she had already pocketed 45,000 baht (S$1,771) out of the 350,000 baht (S$13,776) promised to her. In her defence, she claims the biological parents changed the terms of the deal midway and asked her to travel to China for the delivery.

There are few parties beyond reproach in a surrogacy industry that one veteran Thai obstetrician calls downright "messy". In the absence of regulations or clear guidelines, some women do get duped, while some aspiring parents end up with nothing when a surrogacy arrangement goes horribly wrong.

But many sign on with their eyes wide open.

Ms Suteeda Pawana, 50, runs a small eatery in a quiet neighbourhood in Bangkok's north-west. She recalls her conversations with three surrogate mothers, who ate at her shop every day for months before hurriedly moving out of the neighbourhood around the time that the scandals broke in July.

They were massage therapists and waitresses from Isan, she said. Isan is the poorest region in Thailand.

"They got pregnant one after the other," she told The Straits Times.

All of them were single mothers who left their children in the care of grandparents when they came to the capital in search of a better paying job. But they hardly earned enough - sometimes less than the minimum wage of 300 baht a day - and often had to eat on credit until payday.

"During their pregnancy, they could pay in cash," she said. "They ordered whatever they wanted." Each woman was paid a stipend of 20,000 baht a month during pregnancy.

"I was curious," said Ms Suteeda. "I asked them: Don't they have any feelings towards these babies? They said they were 'chey' (not particularly attached)."

They told Ms Suteeda they were all happy to do it and that when their bodies recovered, they would do it all over again.

One of them even told Ms Suteeda point blank: "This is not wrong."

All the neighbours knew about these mothers, and gossiped about their condition.

But, fearful of official scrutiny and soured by the media attention, the neighbours clammed up when approached by The Straits Times.

Ms Suteeda, in contrast, was not afraid to bare her thoughts.

"I think it's wrong. They cannot guarantee if the baby will be looked after well after they hand it over," she said.

"If they personally knew the parents, it would have been fine. Otherwise, they were just baby-producing factories."

tanhy@sph.com.sg