Sophea and her husband participate in a ceremony to rid her and her family of bad karma, in Oudong, Cambodia. December 7, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Matt Blomberg
by Matt Blomberg and and Yon Sineat | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Campaigners say Cambodia’s surrogacy crackdown is unlikely to end the trade as many women will continue to risk arrest for the chance to earn life-changing sums of money
OUDONG, Cambodia, Sophea was eight months pregnant when Cambodian police told her she would have to keep the baby that was never meant to be hers – and forfeit the $10,000 she was promised for acting as a surrogate for a Chinese couple.
Cambodia banned commercial surrogacy in 2016, and police in June raided two apartments where Sophea and 31 other surrogate mothers were being cared for in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
They were charged the following month with violating human trafficking laws, but authorities released them on bail last week, under the condition they raise the children themselves.
Campaigners say Cambodia’s surrogacy crackdown is unlikely to end the trade as poverty means many women will continue to risk arrest for the chance to earn life-changing sums of money.
For some of the newly-freed women, keeping their baby is a burden as they struggle to get by. For others, it is a relief.
Despite the financial loss, 24-year-old Sophea told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that she was happy the authorities intervened, and that her family had welcomed her baby boy.
“If not for the crackdown and my arrest, I would have been left in deep regret,” said Sophea, who did not give her real name for fear of backlash from the authorities and members of her community.
“I would have given away my baby,” she said just two days after being released from police custody, settling back into village life at the end of a sandy track that winds through rice fields in Oudong, a 90 minute drive north of Phnom Penh.
Members of the other families said the babies are a mixed blessing. Instead of receiving $10,000, the women went home with another mouth to feed, in a country where the average annual income is $1,490, according to the International Monetary Fund.
“It is a very difficult situation. I worry that my income will not support the whole family,” said Pich, a motorcycle-taxi driver whose wife is carrying what will be their third child.
The 40-year-old, who also requested that his real name not be used, said he never supported his wife’s decision to be a surrogate and that he was ashamed she had gone through with it.
Another surrogate, a 24-year-old woman, went behind her husband’s back to take part in the scheme.
The $10,000 would have allowed the couple and their two children to move out of the shack they share with 12 members of their extended family, said the woman on condition of anonymity.
“I agreed to give birth at the provincial hospital and look after the baby, but I don’t know how we will get the money to support and raise another child,” she said.
Ros Sopheap, director of the charity Gender and Development for Cambodia, said poverty will likely drive more women to engage in surrogacy – and that few know the practice is illegal.
“Very few people are aware of what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s against the law,” she said.
“The reality is that these women do this because they are living in poverty. So as long as there is a demand for surrogate mothers, they will continue.”
Southeast Asia has long been a top destination for couples seeking surrogate mothers. Thailand banned the practice in 2015 after several high-profile cases, followed by Cambodia in 2016.
In 2017, an Australian nurse and two Cambodians were jailed for 18 months for operating an illegal surrogacy clinic.
In the country’s most recent surrogacy raid – just last month – 11 pregnant women and four facilitators were arrested.
Chou Bun Eng, a secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, said the 32 women were released on humanitarian grounds last week, but that the fate of the latest 11 surrogates is unclear.
Each case will be judged independently and “law enforcement will become stricter” in the future, according to the official.
It would be difficult, she added, for authorities to track down those who organised surrogacy rings, or the Chinese couples who paid for Cambodian women to bear their children.
“Even surrogate mothers did not know nor (have) contact with the one who wanted the babies,” said Chou Bun Eng.
Sophea said she preferred not to know who the biological parents were.
“I will not tell my son what happened in the past,” she said. “I won’t tell him about his actual Chinese parents.”
She said her priority upon returning home was to invite a Buddhist monk to conduct a cleansing ceremony – in order to rid the family of any bad karma incurred during the ordeal.
Her four-year-old daughter and extended family have also welcomed the baby, she said after the ceremony, which was attended by a dozen relatives and several village elders.
“The whole family loves him,” Sophea said. “My husband (a construction worker) told me: ‘Your son is my son’.”