Mother country: the harrowing truth behind ‘fertility tourism’

Independent on Sunday, 3 August 2014

A surrogate Down’s syndrome baby, abandoned by an Australian couple, exposes the First World’s double standards

The websites show state-of-the-art equipment and laughing parents with babies. The couples are white, without exception, for the websites are aimed at Australians and Europeans who want to have fertility treatment in Thailand. The services on offer include not just IVF but treatments which are illegal in many developed countries, such as commercial surrogacy and gender selection. ‘Women in Thailand are the perfect candidates to become surrogate mothers’, promises one website, suggesting that clients might even like to combine treatment with a holiday. A ‘vacation with benefits’ is how the clinic describes it, but critics use harsher words. They call it ‘fertility tourism’.

According to an organisation called Families Through Surrogacy, there are usually about 20 Australian couples awaiting the birth of their child in Thailand at any one time. Surrogacy is legal in Thailand only when a married couple ask a blood relative to carry their baby but the law has not been widely enforced. The country has become an attractive destination for Australians who are unable to have children, including same-sex couples.

Last week, the result of one such arrangement between a Thai woman and an agency – not the one mentioned above – made headlines around the world, even though the details have not been independently verified. Pattaramon Chanbua, who lives about 60 miles from Bangkok, told reporters that she was struggling to look after a seven-month-old baby with Down’s syndrome after his Australian parents abandoned him. She said the couple took the boy’s twin sister, who was healthy, but left him behind when they returned home to Western Australia.

The circumstances of Chanbua’s pregnancy and its aftermath, as she tells them, are certainly harrowing. She is poor, works on a food stall and, at the age of 21, already has children aged six and three. She agreed to act as a surrogate for the Australian couple only because she needed money. She says: ‘I asked the agency, did I have to sleep with the man? The agent told me, “We are going to make a glass tube baby”, but I didn’t understand. My husband agreed because we didn’t have money to pay our debt and I didn’t need to have sex with another man’.

Her throwaway remark about preferring surrogacy to prostitution is telling. Thailand is notorious for its sex trade, which draws tourists from all over the world, as well as acting as a hub for trafficked women and girls from nearby countries. Sex tourism has now been joined by fertility tourism as a way for poor women and girls to make money, although it isn’t presented like that by the agencies which offer it. They paint a rosy picture in which surrogates ‘are mostly middle-class women, which [sic] view surrogate motherhood…as a way to safely and comfortably earn extra money’. The clinics present commercial surrogacy as a free choice, assuring potential clients that surrogates lead a healthy lifestyle and live in ‘ecologically clean neighbourhoods’.

It is disconcerting to hear young women described as if they were racehorses or pedigree dogs, but there is an occasional burst of candour; one clinic acknowledges that ‘the main focus of this medical clinic is of course the European customers’ who are attracted by the ‘affordable prices’. No wonder that little thought seems to have been given to the impact on young women of carrying a child to term, handing it over to strangers and never seeing it again. In this latest case, the Australian parents have remained anonymous and we don’t know why they took the extraordinary decision to separate twins.

This is not the only case in which a baby has been rejected by biological parents on grounds of health or disability, a circumstance which confirms the mercantile nature of the trade. Thai officials have now cracked down on illegal surrogacy, saying that anyone who tries to remove a child to another country without permission from the government is violating Thailand’s human trafficking laws. This may seem harsh to people who can’t have children but it puts the surrogacy business in a wider context, highlighting the way in which impoverished south-east Asian women are regarded by some foreigners simply as a useful resource. It is one thing for a woman to agree to carry a child for a close friend or relative, but quite another when the parties don’t know each other and there is an imbalance of wealth.

Many wealthy families in the Gulf States and Europe don’t give a second thought to employing Filipina women as domestic servants or nannies, assuming that they will leave their children at home to be cared for by relatives. I’m not sure that renting the womb of a young Thai woman is any better, but both practices say a great deal about the first world’s double standards towards motherhood.

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