Thailand is a popular travel destination for couples looking for a surrogate mother to have their child. Commercial surrogacy is strictly forbidden in many countries, but in Thailand the legal situation is murkier, leading to a rise in Thai women carrying the babies of couples from abroad.
That trend might reverse after an incident late last year involving an Australian couple. The parents reportedly left their baby behind with its Thai surrogate mother because he was born with Down's Syndrome.
The case of baby #Gammy
According to a recent report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), a Western Australian couple had hired a surrogate agency that arranged for 21-year-old Pattaramon Chanbua to be their surrogate mother in Thailand for a payment of about 16,000 Australian dollars ($14,900 or 11,000 euros).
Chanbua, who works in a small street restaurant near Bangkok, accepted the offer. As she told ABC, she wanted to use the money to pay off her debts and educate her two children aged three and six. Chanbua never met the biological parents - she became pregnant through in-vitro fertilization.
In her third month of pregnancy, Chanbua found out that she was carrying twins. The agency then promised her a bonus of 1,150 euros. But one month later, doctors diagnosed one of the babies with Down's Syndrome during a routine check-up. The couple decided they would rather have no children at all than a disabled one and requested that Chanbua terminate the pregnancy.
However, abortion is restricted in Thailand to certain cases such as when the pregnancy endangers the health of the mother or when the pregnancy is due to a sexual offense. Chanbua also told ABC news that she refused to terminate the pregnancy because abortion is considered sinful in Thai culture, a country where Buddhism is the primary religion.
In December of last year, Chanbua gave birth to both twins - a girl and a boy - but when the biological parents returned to Thailand, they only took the healthy baby girl with them and left behind the baby boy with Down's Syndrome with his surrogate family, who named him Gammy.
"I felt sorry for the boy," Chanbua told ABC in an interview. "Why does he have to be abandoned when the other baby has it easy? I feel sorry for him, and I don't know what to do. It's like he's my child, I love him like my own and I treat him like my other children."
No statements have been issued by the Australian couple, who have not been named in the media or by the surrogate agency.
Outcry on social media
Along with Down's Syndrome, baby Gammy has a hole in his heart and will need expensive surgery, something his surrogate family can't afford.
When a Thai newspaper recently reported his case, the news spread to Australia and quickly made its way all over the world, resulting in roughly 5,000 donors raising more than 200,000 US dollars (150,000 euros) in the past twelve days through an online fundraising campaign called "Hope for Gammy."
Seven-month-old Gammy has since been moved to an advanced medical facility in Bangkok, where he is currently receiving treatment. But his story is still triggering public outcry. By using the hashtag #Gammy, many condemned the actions of the Australian couple on social media and advocated for more understanding and support for people with Down's Syndrome:
The saga is also shedding light on the legal grey zone surrounding the use of foreign surrogate mothers. In Australia, citizens of the states New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory are not allowed to pay for surrogacy abroad. However, hundreds of Australians are still turning to Thailand and other countries to purchase the services of surrogate mothers.
According to Surrogacy Australia, an Australian organization that helps Australians using surrogacy overseas and within Australia, there are currently around 400 women worldwide who are carrying the babies of Australian couples.
Meanwhile, Tares Krassanairawiwong, the spokesperson for the Thai Department of Health, told German newspaper "Die Zeit" that it is also illegal to pay for surrogacy in Thailand.
"A surrogate mother has to be related to the biological parents and is not allowed to receive money," he said. It is moreover not allowed to take a baby born by a Thai woman in Thailand to another country without the approval of the Thai foreign ministry.
"Die Zeit" reports that those statements are contradicted by the homepage of the Australian Embassy Thailand, which states that surrogacy is unregulated in Thailand.
The executive director of Surrogacy Australia, Rachel Kunde, told ABC that she is worried the shocking case of baby Gammy might lead to an outright ban of surrogacy in Thailand.
"Someone's left a baby behind and separated it from its twin and pretty much just disregarded that it was their child, which is something that is just unfathomable for people to think about," she said. "Of course, we don't think it should be banned, but we do think there should be more regulation and that surrogacy should be more accessible in Australia, because this is why people are going overseas - because surrogacy isn't as easily done here."
Even Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott referred to the case as "an incredibly sad story" and told Australian reporters that it "illustrates some of the pitfalls involved in this particular business.”
It's an anxious time for Australian parents already using Thai surrogates. They are worried that they'll encounter legal problems when trying to bring their babies back home.
Baby Gammy is currently fighting a lunge infection at the hospital he's been referred to. His surrogate family promised to keep him and told ABC that they are overwhelmed with the generosity of the strangers who have donated so much money for his surgery.