Authorities in Thailand have uncovered an "illegal" operation using Vietnamese women as surrogate mothers, but investigations may face hurdles due to legal issues, according to officials and reports.
Following a tip-off, Thai Police late last month raided a Taiwanese-owned company, Baby 101, allegedly offering commercial surrogacy services in Bangkok.
They also picked up 15 Vietnamese women, seven of them pregnant, linked to the surrogate baby-breeding scheme, described by Thailand's Public Health Minister Jurin Laksanawisit as "illegal and inhuman."
The women, who were promised U.S. $5,000 for every baby they produced, are at present being held at the Kredtrakarn Protection and Occupational Development Center in Thailand.
"The ladies at the center are still very shocked,” said Pakorn Pantun, director of the Thai department of welfare and social development.
"When they are asked questions or are interviewed, they just burst into tears,” he said.
Of the 15, seven are pregnant, two have just given birth, and the other six showed no signs of pregnancy, officials said.
Some of them were forced to carry the babies, they said, adding that the company received orders online or through marketing agents from childless couples.
In some cases, the couple's male partner would provide sperm to inseminate the women.
Thai Police have arrested several people, but the Taiwanese company owner is believed to be at large. Some reports said up to 40 women could have been linked to the scheme.
Minister Jurin said the authorities are considering charging the suspects with human trafficking and illegal detention.
The Taiwanese owner had held the women's passports, said Ladda Benjatachah, director of the Kredtrakarn center.
Several women were "tricked" into participating in the scheme, said Major General Manu Mekmok, commander of investigations for the Thai immigration department. Reports said the women were poor and were promised "easy money.”
Women sought help
The Thai authorities were tipped off after four Vietnamese women sought help from the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok.
Health agencies are likely to take legal action against the medical premises and doctors involved in the scheme.
However, the Bangkok Post newspaper said investigations had "posed problems for police, as commercial surrogacy services as such are not yet illegal in Thailand."
Moves are now under way to change the law and make it explicitly illegal, the newspaper said in a weekend report.
"We were frustrated as we had no idea what specific charges we should file against them," said deputy immigration police chief Pansak Kasemsant.
The investigations have shed light on the "legal limitations and complications" regarding surrogacy, a practice under which a sperm and an egg are bred outside the womb before being embedded in another woman's womb, the Bangkok Post said.
The company has advertised that aside from Thailand, it has offices in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Thai authorities are expected to let the women return home after completing the investigations. They are also working with authorities in Vietnam and Taiwan to determine the biological parents of the babies.
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.