Last week’s arrest of a semen smuggler seems to underline regional inconsistency on commercialised parenthood
The arrest of Nithinon Srithaniyanan last week for attempting to smuggle human semen into Laos should serve as a warning for all countries in the region to be on guard against the rise of commercial surrogacy.
The 25-year-old Thai was fined Bt200,000 for attempting to carry a prohibited substance out of the country. He admitted he’d been hired to take the semen to a fertility clinic in Vientiane and that he had done so undetected multiple times previously. Thai officials said the semen belonged to a Chinese and a Vietnamese man who deposited their sperm at a Bangkok clinic for unclear purposes and that Nithinon was taking it to Laos on their behalf. Customs officials said Nithinon made the trip into Laos 20 times between last July and February this year and into Cambodia 24 times between September and this month.
The suspicion is that the semen is being used for surrogacy in those countries, since Thailand – seeking to bar reproduction for commercial purposes – applied legal restrictions in April 2015 to the practice of hiring women to serve as surrogate mothers.
Amid debate over the morality of people “competing” to produce babies by using technology rather than natural means, Thailand does allow technologically assisted methods such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF), gamete intra-fallopian transfer (GIFT) and artificial insemination. Surrogacy is permitted here only if the woman carrying the foetus is related by blood to the couple seeking to have the child. Couples with no blood relatives able to carry the child are allowed to arrange for a surrogate between 20 and 40 years old, of the same nationality as one spouse, and already the mother of her own children – up to three via natural birth or one via caesarean section.
The restrictions, imposed following a high-profile scandal involving a Japanese sperm donor using Thai surrogates, has left foreigners unable to employ Thai women to carry babies to term. Instead, they’re turning to Thailand’s neighbours, where legal loopholes pave the way to parenthood. Laos and Myanmar have no clear regulations on technology-assisted reproduction or surrogacy, and both nations could benefit from Thailand’s more advanced knowledge in this area.
Cambodia announced temporary guidelines for surrogacy last month, but still allows foreign parents of babies born to Cambodian surrogate mothers to legally take their children out of the country. Its guidelines are aimed at protecting the babies’ rights and preventing commercial surrogacy. The guidelines will be replaced after nine months with a permanent law on the matter.
Vietnam in March 2015 amended its Marriage and Family Law to allow “altruistic surrogacy”. Aware of the potential for the law’s abuse for commercial purposes, it added the amendment to bar surrogate mothers from being reimbursed for expenses, and they can receive no other financial benefits either for carrying someone else’s baby. Vietnamese law allows only “gestational surrogacy”, by which the surrogate mother is impregnated with an embryo created by IVF from the ovum of the wife and sperm from the husband. Vietnam also requires eligible couples and surrogate mothers to register with a government agency, and only three hospitals – in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Hue – are allowed to deal with such cases.
What should be clear from all of this is that the countries of Southeast Asia have no unified approach to the issue, the result of never meeting to discuss the legal and commercial pitfalls involved or exploring ways to cooperate. There should be no discrepancies on the subject, given our technological connectivity and regional integration. But, as there are gaps in our cooperation, it remains possible for foreign couples to pay Thai clinics to arrange surrogacy through mothers living in neighbouring countries.