An Australian nurse denied she was the chief orchestrator of a number of surrogate pregnancies at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday in the opening of Cambodia’s first-ever surrogacy trial.
Tammy Davis-Charles, 49, Ministry of Commerce employee Penh Rithy, 28, and nurse Samrith Chakriya, 34, were arrested in November last year, just two weeks after the Ministry of Health quietly banned commercial surrogacy in a directive.
Despite the ban, the controversial practice exists in a legal vacuum. With a law on the industry still in the drafting stages, the trio were charged not for surrogacy, but for allegedly being intermediaries between an adoptive parent and a pregnant woman, and fraudulently obtaining documents such as birth certificates.
Davis-Charles stridently denied those charges, stressing she did not recruit women to be surrogates or seek out intended parents, and saying her role was simply to supervise surrogates and provide medical care, including ultrasounds and medication, during their pregnancies.
“I monitored the surrogate mothers to care for them and make sure they were safe,” she said.
She said she had tended to a total of 23 pregnancies since arriving in Cambodia at the beginning of 2015, for 18 Australian couples and five Americans. She objected when Prosecutor Vong Bunvisoth’s drew on police statements from the time of her arrest to suggest she personally located the surrogates and collected $50,000 per pregnancy.
“No, I did not. And I explained that many times at the police station and the police officers and the translator would not listen,” she said.
Phat Phalla, deputy chief of the Municipal Anti-Human Trafficking Police, denied this. “They did not force her or fake her answers,” he said, adding Davis-Charles agreed her translator was acceptable at the time.
The hearing – the first time Davis-Charles has spoken publicly about the allegations – sheds some critical light on the much-maligned, and often opaque, surrogacy sphere, which flourished locally following a ban in Thailand.
Judge So Lina questioned whether a surrogate’s eggs were used to create the baby, and why all of the pregnancies Davis-Charles oversaw produced baby girls.
“It’s not something you can control,” said Davis-Charles, with a bemused shrug.
“The Australian families, many have [IVF] treatment for five to 10 years in Australia first, so they don’t care about the sex of the baby, they just want to have a family.”
“The surrogate mother is not biologically linked to the child at all.”
Davis-Charles, founder of Fertility Solutions PGD, made sure not to pitch herself as a central figure in Cambodia’s surrogacy industry, instead identifying her role as only one cog in a broader machine.
Brokers found willing women to be surrogates, while parents desperate for children sought out clinics. At that meeting point is where Davis-Charles claimed she came in, caring for surrogates and funnelling their salary to them, but her role faded after the birth. Other players, she said, took on the task of acquiring the necessary documents to get newborns out of the country.
Her testimony implicated Fertility Clinic of Cambodia – which in the past labelled allegations that it was involved in surrogacy as “false and misleading”, despite proof to the contrary. Davis-Charles also referred to organisations such as New Genetics Global and Sy Management during the hearing, suggesting the latter was invested in brokering surrogates and obtaining documents.
Read more: A trio’s surrogacy saga
All told, intended parents would fork out $50,000 for a newborn baby. Surrogates were paid $10,000, with an added bonus if they gave birth to twins, and Davis-Charles said she was paid $8,000 per pregnancy.
Two surrogate mothers, Mith Sithorn and Hao Vanny, who had both delivered babies to parents abroad, testified that a man named Savoeun had approached them to become surrogates. “We did not have money, so I was willing to do it,” said Sithorn. “The baby in the body is not mine.”
Vanny echoed her sentiment. “I did not know whether the baby was a boy or a girl. I did not see it,” she said.
Meanwhile, Davis-Charles said Chakriya, the Cambodian nurse arrested last November, was “just a translator”, but in her own testimony Chakriya said she often would carry out medical check-ups at Davis-Charles’ bidding.
Chakriya was arrested more than four months after she quit work to go on maternity leave, telling The Post last month that she had “no idea working for her would lead to my arrest”.
Rithy, however, admitted to recruiting five or six surrogates, for which he received a salary of $400 per month. He also said he received $600 for going to the commune office to arrange birth certificates for the newborns, admitting he paid $300 per document, which is supposed to be free.
The fraudulent request for documents carries the more severe sentence – two years in prison – compared to the six months the accused would receive if found guilty of mediating between adoptive parents and pregnant women.
The trial will continue at an unspecified date.