The trial of a nurse accused of running an illegal overseas surrogacy service began in Cambodia last week.
Australian Tammy Davis-Charles was arrested in November 2016 along with two Cambodian citizens (see BioNews 879). They were accused of recruiting foreign couples and Cambodian surrogates from a clinic in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, and also of faking documents to procure birth-certificates for the newborns. The arrests came a fortnight after Cambodian authorities banned commercial surrogacy.
Taking the stand last week, Ms Davis-Charles protested that she had been advised that commercial surrogacy was legal. She told the court: 'I asked three different lawyers about the law in Cambodia. I was told that there was no law about surrogacy in Cambodia and it was allowed.'
The nurse also denied arranging surrogacies, and instead said that her role was to provide medical care to 23 surrogate mothers. Foreign would-be parents found her clinic by themselves, she added, and she was not involved in recruiting Cambodian women to act as surrogates.
Ms Davis-Charles stated that she received $8,000 from each couple, while two surrogates testified to receiving around $10,000.
One surrogate mother, Hor Vanday, said she gave birth to a girl but that she was removed from her immediately after birth. She told the court: 'I did not see the face of the baby, but I know her father took her away.' She did not miss the child, she added, as she knew it was never hers. Another surrogate testified that she carried an Australian couple's baby as she needed the money 'to support her poor family'.
Ms Davis-Charles, who is originally from Melbourne, told the court she ran a surrogacy clinic in Thailand before authorities there outlawed the practice in 20312 (see BioNews 791) after which she relocated to Cambodia.
The prosecution of Ms Davis-Charles follows moves by governments in the region to criminalise commercial surrogacy, with India (see BioNews 866) and Nepal (see BioNews 817) also having banned the practice in recent years. These actions followed long-running complaints that the surrogacy was exploitative; concerns highlighted in scandals over the custody of infants born via surrogacy, such as the 'Baby Gammy' case in Thailand in 2014 (see BioNews 765) .
Laos looks to be emerging as the new destination of choice for commercial surrogacy. A Thai man was recently arrested for smuggling frozen sperm into the country and according to Families Through Surrogacy, a number of IVF clinics and surrogacy agencies have sprung up there. The Guardian reports that some agencies offer to carry out the embryo transfer in Laos and then provide medical care for the surrogate in Thailand, a wealthier country with more sophisticated healthcare.