Dreams on hold for those who risked Cambodia's surrogacy frontier
Even by Cambodian standards, Chan Nareth is poor.
- Ms Chan told she could earn equivalent to eight years wages as surrogate
- There is no law dealing specifically with surrogacy in Cambodia
- For Srey Roth, surrogacy offered a rare chance to escape a miserable life
She lives on the very last fringes of Phnom Penh’s sprawl, down a flooded, rubbish-strewn alley in a dark single room, cheek-by-jowl with other victims of the capital’s unforgiving urbanisation.
With rising debts and four daughters to support, the 32-year-old heard about a possible way out of her crushing poverty.
“I met two former surrogates who knew where to find [translator] Ya and Tammy, the Australian woman,” said Ms Chan.
“They checked my womb to see if I could get pregnant and Tammy took care of me,” she told the ABC.
The arrest of Australian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles on Friday signalled a crackdown on the surrogacy trade in Cambodia, and the start of desperate uncertainty for prospective parents and pregnant surrogates.
For both, the stakes are huge.
Ms Chan was told she could earn $13,500 — equivalent to eight years’ wages in her former garment factory job.
She was asked to overlook certain details in the documentation process.
“They [the company] required me to be a widow, but I don’t know why they needed this,” she told the ABC, as her husband squatted in the doorway.
In March, Ms Chan became pregnant and was given a $400 bonus, but had a miscarriage.
The second time she conceived, her bonus was only $200, but once she passed the nine-week mark, she began receiving monthly payments of $540 — an upfront cost that would be taken out of her total payment.
She is now five months pregnant and terrified it might all be for nothing.
“I’m constantly thinking that ultimately there will be no money,” she said.
“I’m in turmoil and on top of that, there’s a baby inside my belly … the baby of another person.”
Legal limbo for 70 surrogacy cases
Cambodia’s lax laws and rampant corruption have long made it frontier territory for illegal timber, drugs and human trafficking.
Now add surrogacy to that list.
It emerged as a low-cost, high-risk market last year, after Thailand shut down commercial surrogacy.
The Thai ban was prompted by the Baby Gammy scandal and the case of a Japanese man who fathered 19 children using surrogates.
In neighbouring Cambodia, there is no law dealing specifically with surrogacy, although the Government is reportedly keen to introduce one.
As an interim measure, a ministry directive — or ‘prakas’ — was issued by Health Minister Mam Bunheng on October 24.
“Surrogacy, one of a set of services to have a baby by Assisted Reproductive Technology, is banned completely,” the directive said.
However, Cambodian legal sources explain that a prakas is meant to support existing legislation, not act as a law.
This puts the estimated 70 surrogacy cases already underway in a legal grey area.
Representatives from the Australian embassy, Cambodian Government, police, surrogates and their clients will meet today to discuss the problem.
The ABC tried to speak to one of the law firms allegedly involved in drafting agreements between Tammy Davis-Charles’s operation and Fertility Clinics Cambodia.
However, a man who said he was the head of Khmer Angkor Law Firm refused to be interviewed and threatened to call the police.
None of the major IVF facilities admit to offering surrogacy services, but at Chan Nareth’s tiny house, a plastic bag with the Fertility Clinics Cambodia logo hangs from a nail in the wall.
Rare chance to escape poverty
In the next village, another woman has already benefited from Australian surrogate money.
“The husband was a tall and handsome Australian guy, a pilot, [and] the wife was from Singapore,” said Srey Roth.
The couple were in the room when Srey Roth had a caesarean earlier this year.
“They were a bit scared the baby might get swapped!” she told the ABC.
She said Tammy Davis-Charles had made a point of talking with her after the birth, but said she did not find it too difficult to give the baby away.
For Srey Roth, surrogacy offered a rare chance to escape a miserable life.
The 30-year-old Cambodian mother of two had debts, her husband had left her and she could not sleep properly.
Since the surrogacy, she has not only settled her debts but now lends money to garment factory workers, at 20 per cent interest.
Her husband has returned and she bought him a new motorcycle.
Srey Roth’s house is small, but has tiled floors and new appliances.
“I think the Government should allow surrogacy because some people are very poor,” she said.
“Out of poverty, me and others volunteered to do this, nobody forced us.”