Same-sex couple get custody of baby girl born to Thai surrogate mum

Spaniard Manuel Santos leaving the Central Juvenile and Family Court in Bangkok on April 26.
Spaniard Manuel Santos leaving the Central Juvenile and Family Court in Bangkok on April 26.PHOTO: REUTERS

Court in Bangkok awards foreign couple custody of girl born to Thai surrogate mum

In a closely watched trial, a court in Bangkok yesterday awarded a foreign same-sex couple custody of a baby girl born to a Thai surrogate mother.

Spaniard Manuel Santos, 41, was in tears after the ruling which came after months of anxiety, telling reporters outside the court: "Thanks to our lawyers, to the people of Thailand, our supporters, to people who donated to our expenses. Thank you everyone."

The Central Juvenile and Family Court granted legal custody of the 15-month-old girl, Carmen Lake, to Santos' partner, Gordon Lake.

Mr Lake, 41, was not in court. The American is the biological father of Carmen. The egg came from an anonymous donor, and was carried to term by Ms Patidta Kusolsang in a deal arranged by an agency called New Life.

Ms Patidta reportedly handed Carmen to Mr Lake at the hospital after giving birth to her, but later said she had not been told the couple were gay, and demanded custody of the child. While Carmen was in the care of Mr Lake and Mr Santos, she could not be issued a passport because of Ms Patidta's suit against them.

Since Carmen's birth in January last year, Mr Lake has been living in secret locations in Thailand, apparently worried that she would be kidnapped. Mr Santos moved back to Spain, where they have a two-year-old boy, born to a surrogate mother in India.

The couple reportedly raised US$36,000 (S$48,600) through a crowd-funded appeal titled "Bring Carmen Home". Many Thais donated to them as the emotive case dragged on and the couple struggled to make ends meet.

The high-profile legal battle came on the heels of cases that put the spotlight on the previously unregulated surrogacy industry, leading Thailand to ban foreigners from paying Thai women to be surrogate mums in February last year.

The arrangement with Ms Patidta predated the ban, so it was exempt.

The New Life agency has closed its branch in Bangkok. It claimed all along that Ms Patidta had been adequately informed that the clients were a same-sex couple.

Among the cases that led to the ban was one in 2014 in which a Japanese man paid women to carry and give birth to 16 children. In another case, a boy with Down syndrome was left in Thailand with his surrogate mother while his Australian parents took his twin sister back home. After the scandal made headlines, Australia granted citizenship to the boy.

Yesterday's court ruling appears to allow Mr Santos and Mr Lake to go home with Carmen.

"Now we can fly to Spain with Carmen," Mr Santos said. "We don't know when, but it's going to be soon." He also said: "We expected this, because it was so clear that Carmen would have to grow up with us. Because we love her, she is our daughter, and she knows her family. She is really happy with us. And (Ms Patidta) is not the biological mother."

The couple's lawyer, Mr Rachapol Sirikulchit, said Ms Patidta has the right to appeal. It is not clear if she would.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2016, with the headline 'Same-sex couple get custody of baby girl'. Print Edition | Subscribe