Anti-human trafficking police in Phnom Penh arrested three people on Friday for their involvement in Cambodia’s opaque commercial surrogacy industry, marking the first-ever arrests in a sector still largely free of concrete legal parameters.
Australian national Tammy Davis-Charles, founder of the surrogacy agency Fertility Solutions PGD, was arrested along with two Cambodian nationals who worked with her – Penh Rithy, an employee at the Ministry of Commerce, and Sambath Chakriya, a nurse at Sihanouk Hospital – said Keo Thea, director of the anti-trafficking office.
The arrest was the result of a 10-month investigation into a surrogacy operation that allegedly recruited 23 surrogate mothers in Phnom Penh and Kandal provinces, he added. Eighteen women are currently pregnant and five babies have left Cambodia with their intended parents.
The trio is being charged under Article 332 of the Penal Code, which prohibits acting as an intermediary between adoptive parents and a pregnant woman. They are also charged with possession of fraudulent documents and could face up to two years in prison if found guilty, Thea said.
Commercial surrogacy came to Cambodia about a year ago after it was banned in countries like Thailand, India and Nepal. Agencies like Fertility Solutions PGD, which operated in Thailand for years, moved to Cambodia, where the legal framework was uncertain.
Article 332 was originally drafted to combat trafficking and does not directly apply to surrogacy. But over the past several months, the government routinely stated its intention to ban the industry.
On October 24, the Ministry of Health issued a prakas banning surrogacy outright. But legal experts said the directive lacked the force of law.
Regardless, news of the prakas had reached major industry players in Cambodia. “We had moved out of Cambodia since the prakas was announced,” Josh Lam, founder of the Thailand-based New Genetics Global, wrote in an email to the Post.
Davis-Charles is listed on New Genetics Global’s website as a partner, while Rithy told the Post in October that he worked with the agency to bring foreign couples to the Phnom Penh-based Fertility Clinic of Cambodia for surrogacy services.
It’s unclear which IVF clinics Fertility Solutions PGD used in Cambodia. But a testimonial on the agency’s website by a couple called “Kate & David” named the Cambodian Fertility Clinic (CFC), which operates out of Phnom Penh’s Central hospital.
Nhu Tuyet, director of the CFC, has routinely denied her involvement in surrogacy despite evidence of her collaboration with surrogacy agencies. Tuyet did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
Sam Everingham, global director of the Australia-based company Families Through Surrogacy, said the arrests are likely to provoke anxiety in intended parents waiting for babies to be delivered. “Parents have been told [by the Australian Embassy] to go to the embassy Monday with their paperwork to try to expedite the process,” Everingham said.
Most of the intended parents seeking services from Davis-Charles are Australian, Thea noted. In September, Australia’s government warned its citizens against travelling to Cambodia for surrogacy, noting they could be prosecuted for trafficking under Cambodian law.
The crackdown on the burgeoning industry has provoked the ire of some surrogacy heavyweights. Mariam Kukunashvili, founder of the international surrogacy agency New Life Global Network, said Cambodia’s government is “stupid” for choosing to leave Cambodian women in “poverty and misery” by denying them the economic opportunities the industry offers.
Agents should “stay firm” and “save their employees”, Kukunashvili added.
But Rodrigo Montero, gender adviser for German international development agency GIZ, welcomed the move, claiming the industry exploits the vulnerability of impoverished women.
“Brokers are travelling to impoverished communities across Cambodia to get surrogate mothers,” Montero said. “I particularly welcome that the anti-trafficking police . . . are in the lead to stop surrogacy, as this industry uses similar operating procedures as trafficking criminals.”
Now officials say the safety of surrogates and babies is of particular concern. Chou Bun Eng, permanent vice chair of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking (NCCT), said the committee will meet on Thursday to decide whether to classify surrogates as victims of a crime, and to analyse the potential economic benefits of the industry.
“The women,” the anti-trafficking police’s Thea said, “they need care and support.”
Fertility Services PGD declined to comment.