For two nights, Bopha* hadn’t slept in anticipation of this moment. When the SUV pulled up in front of her home, she emerged without hesitation, opened the back door of the vehicle and slid into the seat next to the Dutch man who had travelled 9,500 kilometres to see her.
Johan* was nervous and excited at the same time. He wanted to hug Bopha but didn’t know if it would be appropriate; they had never had physical contact before. Instead, he sat in front of the woman he was paying to carry his child and began to ask her questions.
“How are you feeling, and how is the baby?” he began through a translator.
“I don’t sleep much because the baby is kicking so hard,” she responded.
For two hours they sat talking. She told him about her morning sickness and that she had been craving bread. He broke into a broad smile.
“It’s a European baby,” he said, laughing.
But the meeting was more than just an emotional catch-up session between two near- strangers. Finding each other had been a struggle, and Johan was armed with a laundry-list of things to get done.
When Johan and his partner, Pieter*, decided to become parents, they didn’t imagine the lengths to which they’d ultimately go to have a child that is genetically linked to one of them.
From their home in Amsterdam, the two men were considering their options. Another gay couple they knew had a baby through commercial surrogacy, in which a woman is paid to carry a child that is not her own. The pair decided surrogacy was the way for them to start a family, too. So they turned to the well-known surrogacy agency New Life Asia, a branch of New Life Global Network.
“In these situations, you have to transfer money beforehand, so obviously I was worried about scams, and I went for the agency that our friend used the year before,” Johan explains.
“They were also the cheapest,” Pieter adds. “I would have rather done it in a Western country like the US or Canada, but the problem is it is too expensive ... around $150,000.”
Their lack of funds ultimately led them to Cambodia, where renting a womb costs about $50,000.
New Life arranged for Bopha, a 35-year-old Cambodian woman from Kampong Speu province, to be impregnated with an embryo made from Johan’s sperm and the egg of a South African woman of Dutch descent.
Johan and the egg donor met at the Fertility Clinic of Cambodia (FCC) in Phnom Penh last year on a sweltering July morning. It was his first trip to Asia.
During the visit, Johan had the chance to meet Bopha briefly. It was a rare opportunity for a foreign intended parent, since parents are usually kept far from the women carrying their babies. Their conversation lasted 15 minutes and was facilitated by a translator from New Life.
“I wanted to know if she really wanted to do this and what was the reason,” Johan says, adding that he didn’t trust the translator to tell him if Bopha said something negative.
Bopha assured Johan that she had volunteered as a surrogate, but didn’t tell him that she was doing it for the money. She is to receive $10,000 in total, $300 a month during the pregnancy, with the remainer given after giving birth. This has allowed her to quit her job in a garment factory, and she’d like to start her own business after the baby boy is born in April.
The two snapped a photo together with Johan’s smartphone and went their separate ways. The embryo was implanted in Bopha at the FCC five days later. After that, it was up to the agency to facilitate the rest. Johan just needed to pay his monthly instalments and wait for news of his baby.
But Johan and Pieter didn’t know that Cambodia’s government had begun cracking down on commercial surrogacy. As Cambodia began swiftly moving to rid the country of the practise, making the first arrests in November last year, New Life grew cagey. Attempting to hide its activities in the Kingdom, the agency asked intended parents not to contact them, and made it impossible for Bopha, now months into her pregnancy, to contact their representatives.
Someone from New Life had formerly called Bopha once a month from a private number, but the calls stopped in late October after the Ministry of Health issued a prakas banning surrogacy, Bopha says. Her contact person at the agency told her he was no longer working for New Life but refused to provide her with an alternative number to call.
Meanwhile, New Life refused to allow Bopha and Johan to contact each other.
“I gave the agency my Facebook information so the father could contact me,” Bopha explains. “But they wouldn’t give it to him.”
As Johan and Pieter worked to obtain the documents needed to repatriate their child to the Netherlands after its birth, the agency offered little guidance. As time went on, the pair grew anxious they wouldn’t be able to bring their baby home, and Bopha began to worry the baby’s parents might never claim it.
“I didn’t hear anything from the agency through November and December,” Bopha says. “So I was already making plans to raise the child on my own.”
Before intended parents can leave Cambodia with a child born to a surrogate mother, the parents must obtain a birth certificate from a local official and have it translated and legalised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In Johan and Pieter’s case, documents proving the identity and marital status of the surrogate mother are also required to transfer Dutch citizenship to the child prior to birth, and the surrogate mother must sign a document giving custody of the child to the intended parents. But in recent months, the ministry began actively working to identify cases of surrogacy and prevent the necessary documents from being processed.
As Johan and Pieter attempted to navigate the legal grey area in pursuit of Dutch citizenship for their unborn child, it became clear that something wasn’t right. They had transferred $27,000 to a Georgian bank account as part of a package that allegedly included legal support. But the lawyer New Life gave them, a man named Phary Duch, acted like he was doing them a favour, Johan says.
“This was supposed to be the company lawyer … but later in the emails, he said our conversation with New Life doesn’t interest him, so we should keep that separate,” Johan says. The lawyer also told the couple he didn’t care about their feelings.
After repeatedly feeling disrespected by the lawyer, the men decided to contact New Life’s Asia manager, Nana Tskhondia, directly.
“We spoke with Nana on Skype and explained what paperwork we needed, but New Life didn’t want any paper to be stamped by the government,” says Pieter. “That made me suspicious right away. They did say this was not illegal, but apparently it was also not legal.”
During the Skype session, Johan said that Tskhondia recommended the couple omit the word surrogacy from all documents, and suggested that Johan pretend he had gotten Bopha pregnant. Shortly thereafter, the couple read that surrogacy was about to be made illegal in Cambodia.
Attempts by The Post to reach Tskhondia this week via phone and email were unsuccessful.
“We heard about the ban, and then it made sense why they were trying to delay,” Pieter says. “It felt like we were going in circles.”
A month after news of the ban was made public, New Life emailed its clients addressing the changing legal framework in Cambodia.
In an email obtained by The Post, the agency claimed that non-commercial surrogacy, also known as altruistic surrogacy, was still legal in the Kingdom, and that contracts between the surrogate mothers and intended parents would be altered to make it appear as if the process took place without the exchange of money.
“The truth about the surrogacy is that it is now regulated and is allowed for non-commercial reasons while surrogacy/egg donation has been prohibited for commercial reasons.
This enables New Life to continue accepting more intended parents for surrogacy/egg donation programs. For this reason we have updated the Contract between surrogate mother and intended parents and have successfully adjusted it to ensure that it is in conformity with the new requirements of surrogacy of non-commercial nature,” reads an email from New Life to intended parents.
The email also states that Mariam Kukunashvili, New Life’s founder, would arrive in Cambodia on November 14 to meet with “relevant institutions and partner clinics”.
Kukunashvili has repeatedly claimed that New Life left Cambodia in mid-2016, and that the agency no longer operates in the Kingdom. Questions sent to Kukunashvili this week by email went unanswered.
On November 24, following the arrest of an Australian national in connection with surrogacy, the parents received another email revealing that the agency was actively trying to hide their work in Cambodia.
The email, also seen by The Post, explained that New Life’s lawyers recommended that the agency cut communication with the intended parents, and that local staff were working to hide evidence of their connection with the agency.
“[The employees] have signed formal resignation letters and kept the parents informing that they resigned from New Life but this was done as per advise [sic] of the local lawyer for their own security. To give them peace of mind, New Life head office authorised them to change the e-mail addresses and mobile numbers, therefore please don’t get puzzled if you receive e-mails from Savetey, Linda and Socheata under different names without having New Life mentioned,” the email reads.
Four days later, a third email arrived in English and Chinese.
“It has been extremely hard for all of us to work in this emergency situation,” the email said. “As we already informed, local staff members are very frightened but from the shadow they are in touch with Surrogates but avoiding contact and personal meetings with intended parents.
Thus do not expect personal meetings with them because its [sic] too risky and this will cause their detention as well by police.”
The email also explained that New Life would continue to work with Khema Hospital, the FCC and Central Hospital in the capital to provide surrogates with pregnancy care.
After receiving the emails, Johan and Pieter’s anxiety grew.
“The first two weeks after we heard about the ban were quite stressful. We didn’t know how the surrogate mother was being treated or considered legally,” says Pieter.
They began to wonder if Bopha would go into hiding, or if she would decide to abort the child out of fear. They wanted to talk to her and tell her they’d take care of her and the baby, but New Life ignored their messages asking for her contact details.
For Johan, who suffered from a heart attack the previous year, the stress was taking a toll.
“You have to experience stress during pregnancy,” Pieter jokes.
“But it’s a little too much stress,” Johan counters.
The couple began reaching out to others for help.
“I talked to the Dutch [ministry] of foreign affairs, but at first they said that they don’t really want to help. Then we went to a Dutch lawyer, but a Dutch lawyer can’t do anything in Cambodia,” Johan explains. “We didn’t know what to do.”
Back in Cambodia, Bopha was also growing increasingly worried. Her requests that New Life put her in touch with the baby’s parents were repeatedly rebuffed. Aside from monthly ultrasounds at Central Hospital, she had no support during her pregnancy and no one to call in case of an emergency. What’s more, the pregnancy was making her nauseous.
“All I can eat is condensed milk with syrup,” she says, stirring the thick, pink liquid into her glass with a spoon. This is Bopha’s first pregnancy, and she doesn’t know what to expect.
Most agencies require that surrogate mothers have at least one child of their own before being recruited, but Bopha lied on her application, saying she had a 5-year-old child.
New Life did not verify whether the claims Bopha made on her application were true. The document clearly states that the agency takes no responsibility for what is written on the form, which includes questions about whether the surrogate mother smokes, uses drugs or has had a previous miscarriage.
Bopha’s reasons for becoming a surrogate mother were multifaceted. She and her husband divorced almost 10 years ago after he cheated on her. The now 35-year-old never remarried but says she wanted to experience pregnancy. She was also seduced by the allure of financial independence. With ageing parents who can no longer support her, Bopha saw surrogacy as a path to a new life.
“Maybe I’ll use the money to become a clothing vendor,” she says.
But in order to reconcile her actions with her own beliefs, Bopha had to place the situation in her own cultural frame of reference.
“I know we’ve never lived together, but I think of [Johan] as my husband, as if we’re having a child together,” she says. “I am happy that my son will have a good life and live abroad and get a good education … I hope one day he will visit me.”
Mom and dad
After months of uncertainty, Johan and Pieter reached out to Dutch and Cambodian media as a last resort. Days later, when Post reporters approached Bopha with a photograph of Johan outside of Central Hospital, she broke out in a smile of relief.
“I saw some surrogate mothers in a very desperate state after delivery because their intended parents did not show up,” she says.
And while she’ll be sad to give the baby up, she says she’s confident Johan and Pieter will be good parents.
“I know they are a gay couple, but I think foreign men know how to take care of children better than Cambodian men,” she says.
After Johan met Bopha, they set about obtaining the baby’s paperwork and having it notarised. Their initial meeting, while a happy one, was complicated by communication barriers and cultural clashes, he says.
But after several days of travelling around together in tuk-tuks, Johan and Bopha managed to obtain the documents needed to give the unborn child Dutch citizenship.
Before returning to the Netherlands, Johan scheduled a return flight to Cambodia for a week before the baby’s due date. “Now I can finally breathe again,” he says with a smile. “It’s such a relief.”
But while Johan left Cambodia with an understandable sense of relief, the story has yet to be written for what sources estimate to be well over a hundred surrogates still carrying the children of foreigners in the Kingdom.
And with the industry that facilitated it scrambling for the shadows, surrogates and parents alike will continue to navigate in the dark, their lives and those of the babies in limbo.
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.