Cross-posted from Biopolitical Times, the online publication of the Center for Genetics and Society.
On Thursday, February 24th, Thai police announced that they had rescued 14 Vietnamese women, aged 19 to 26, from a criminal "baby breeding" ring. Nine of the women said they agreed to be surrogates because of the promise of a $5500 payment, while at least four said they had been tricked. Their passports had been confiscated. Seven of the women were pregnant and two had very recently given birth.
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The operation was busted when the women managed to send an email to their embassy, which informed the local authorities, who were horrified. "This is illegal and inhuman. In some cases it looks like they were raped," said the Public Health Minister.
The 15 victims (another was found later) will soon be repatriated. "We will clear up their overstay charges," said a Police Colonel, "and help them until they are back home." The Vietnamese government has committed to taking care of the babies.
Thai police have arrested four Taiwanese, one Chinese and three Myanmar nationals. The operation appears to be Taiwan-based, and run over the Internet under the name Baby 101, or Babe-101, though the website is confusingly called Baby-1001. The site has reportedly been blocked in Vietnam but was still accessible in Thailand, and the U.S., on March 1st.
This nightmarish operation seems to exemplify the worst fears about international surrogacy. At this writing, no one has been convicted, but it seems clear that the business was intended to circumvent national laws. In Taiwan, commercial surrogacy is prohibited, and the Chinese-language website links to what seems (using Google translate) to be a plea for legalization by the founder of the company. Moreover, the Chinese, English and Japanese versions all prominently display a version of this disclaimer (the fractured English is in the original):
Important Notice :
Babe101 Not Use Thailand surrogacy mother. The protection of the law is absolutely. Hundred percent peace of mind you have no worries.
This is presumably in response to the fact that Thai law (which perhaps the organizers thought only applied to Thai citizens) says it is illegal "to be paid to carry another person's child."
Even if this were not the case, however (and the company has another location in Cambodia, which may not have laws on the subject), Babe-101 is extremely disturbing. The term "eugenic" is prominently displayed, and used to justify the business, since "only the superior [are] left for implanting." The customers are clearly thought to be career women. In the sales pitch, reasons for hiring a surrogate include not only infertility but:
- The consignor can continue to work without worrying about losing job or business intermission. It is quite suitable for the women who desire to have kids but no time for pregnancy.
- Unnecessary to fear the pain of birth pangs.
- Unnecessary to worry about out of shape on your stature, neither to fear the intimacy fading.
The total fee appears to be $32,000 plus about $5800 in expenses, payable in 6 installments: $1500 upfront, $6000 on signing the contract, and then at pregnancy, at 3.5 and then 6.5 months, and at delivery. Expenses include $200/month for the surrogate before IVF treatment, $300/month for nutrition during pregnancy and $600 for extra care after childbirth. Egg "donation" is extra (possibly over $15,000), and both Oriental and Caucasian "donors" are offered. Sex selection is available at no extra charge.
In filling out the handy on-line form, customers can specify the preferred height, weight, age, education and marital status of the surrogate (whom they never have to meet—that's a selling point), as well as their appearance: Average, nice, pretty, or no specific request. And, yes, there are pictures, many of which seem to have been taken around the swimming pool at one of the Bangkok properties where the Vietnamese women were kept.
AFP reported this story in English last Thursday. It's a big scandal in southeast Asia, fairly widely reported in Australia, and increasingly in the UK and Europe. As of Wednesday morning, however, Google had turned up only two news reports in the U.S. (Huffington Post and San Francisco Examiner) plus a few blog posts. That's extremely unfortunate, since this horrible story represents all that is worst about the industry of reproduction.
The Bangkok Post is rightly concerned that there may be efforts to "sweep yet another embarrassment under the rug and move on." It is campaigning for extradition of the principals from their native Taiwan, and for prosecution of them and their Thai enablers, especially including doctors and hospitals. The paper's editorial also calls for a wider debate about the ethics of surrogacy in Thailand. Better yet, couple that with international efforts to combat the abuse and exploitation of young, poor, vulnerable women everywhere.