Carrying a Stranger’s Child Through an Uncertain Time

Ly Raksmey left her home in the heart of the country’s rice bowl in January and headed to a hospital on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The 34-year-old stayed there several nights, in a facility that was better and cleaner than any hospital she had slept in before.

When Ms. Raksmey, who asked that her real name be withheld because she wished to keep her involvement private, returned to her husband and three children in Prey Veng province, she was pregnant with the child of two people she had never met—and likely never will.

Last year was a bad one for rice, Ms. Raksmey explained during an interview at a KFC fast-food outlet along Russian Boulevard in late September. In fact, the last few years had been bad for farmers in the southern province.

“The rice these days isn’t so good,” she said. “The water has dried. We don’t sell any rice anymore, my family. We only farm it to eat. I sell a few pigs—mother pigs and babies. When the water does come, it floods the farmland and ruins the rice.”

Ms. Raksmey has three children of her own—the oldest one is 12. She doesn’t plan to have any more. But when a relative of hers started work with Bangkok-based surrogacy agent New Genetics Global, and came to her with an offer of $10,000 to carry a French couple’s child, she gave it some thought.

The money was tempting.

“If we think about this work—it is good work, for people,” she said, resting her hands on a blue blouse stretched tight over a pregnant stomach. “We are helping those in the world who do not have the ability to conceive a child.”

Ms. Raksmey, along with two more of New Genetics Global’s surrogate mothers—the agency had about 20 to 30 then—first agreed to an interview about two months ago, and she has occasionally spoken to reporters since.

Representatives of New Genetics Global accompanied the women during the initial interview, which took place after checkups for all three at the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital. They were hesitant to speak, or perhaps hesitant to speak in front of the agents. None agreed to give their names.

Though surrogacy was not yet banned in the country—that decision was handed down by the health minister early last month—they said they had not told anyone outside of their immediate families that the children they were carrying weren’t theirs.

“You see, there are people in the countryside who know and understand things well, and there are some people who do not,” Ms. Raksmey said.

Her two companions also come from sparse circumstances. One, Run Ry, who will give birth in April, said she was a poor rice farmer in Pursat province. Just 21, with an 18-month-old daughter, she said the surrogate pregnancy had been her mother’s idea.

The third, Sok Sreypov, used to work in a garment factory. Her husband was a journalist who knew the agent. Her pregnancy, she said, was his idea. Unlike the other two, she was put up in a “comfortable” facility in Phnom Penh for her pregnancy, at the behest of the parents for whom she was carrying twins.

The agency, they said, charged $32,000 to $45,000 to the prospective parents, depending on whether the mother was carrying twins and whether she stayed at the agency’s facility or at her own house. The mothers themselves received $10,000 in installments, the first at the baby’s first heartbeat and the last when the parents successfully brought the baby home, said Ms. Raksmey and the agents who sat with her.

Only one of the mothers had met the parents whose child she was carrying: Ms. Ry, who was staying in Phnom Penh until the birth.

“They’re foreigners—French. They came to Phnom Penh and met me twice in the hospital,” she said. “They had a translator. They asked me about my feelings and my body. They asked a lot of questions—my health, and what my life had been. I had the usual feelings. I said I was happy.”

All of them, though, said they had no moral qualms with becoming surrogate mothers.

“Why did I do this job?” Ms. Ry said. “It’s a bit easy, in its way. It’s not a very hard job. When I gave birth previously, I also got check-ups once a month, but it was in a health center in Pursat. They can’t really do anything there if there’s a problem, and it’s hard for them to know what the problems are. Now I’m getting checkups once a month that the agency is paying for, at a good hospital.”

Just over a month after the meeting, on October 24, Health Minister Mam Bunheng announced a sudden ban on surrogate pregnancies, sending about 50 agencies and hundreds of pregnant Cambodians scrambling for answers—many of which still have not come.

On November 18, Tammy Davis-Charles, an Australian nurse who founded Fertility Solutions PGD, was arrested, charged and imprisoned for connecting her clients with surrogate mothers.

Though police initially issued reassurances about the fate of surrogates and clients who found each other through Ms. Davis-Charles, the government has remained vague about the fate of mothers affiliated with other agents.

It was irresponsible for surrogate mothers to carry a child whose father they had never met, said Chou Bun Eng, secretary-general of the Interior Ministry’s committee to fight human trafficking and sexual exploitation, shortly after Ms. Davis-Charles’ arrest.

“We want those women to show up and tell us what they have inside their bodies,” she said. “They can’t just recklessly allow the baby to come out without knowing where the father is.”

In the wake of the ban, many surrogates went into hiding or temporarily relocated to another country. Those connected to Ms. Raksmey’s agency fled to Thailand, she said several weeks ago.

Ms. Raksmey was fortunate, however. She gave birth just days before the ban came into effect, in a hospital in Phnom Penh, and returned home to her family, just in time for the end of the year rice harvest. She doesn’t worry about the child, though she still thinks about it.

“Our blood fills its body,” she said. “So how can we not miss it?”

Ms. Ry’s phone was switched off at some point in recent weeks and has remained disconnected. The numbers of the surrogacy agency, and the people who accompanied the three to their initial interview, are unreachable.

While the company’s chief executive has said the firm set up another operation in Laos several months ago, he refused to comment on the progress of that operation, or whether the Cambodian surrogate mothers yet to give birth had been moved there.

Ms. Raksmey understands why the government banned the practice, she said earlier this week.

“If we think about it, in truth—the company has to do its business, but the law must protect us. There could be problems,” she said.

“I don’t know what the problems could be,” she added. “I’ve heard there can be a lot, but I didn’t think to investigate any of them.”

Still, if the law allows it, she would consider doing it again, she said, though she did not think it was likely. She is concerned for would-be parents who are running out of places that allow surrogacy—the trade moved to Cambodia largely because it was banned in Thailand.

“I don’t know. Maybe they can’t have a child at all,” she said. “I don’t know where in the world they can go now.”

In the end, she got all the money owed to her. “My house is rotting, so I’m going to fix it. And later on, I’ll put some aside for my child to learn.”

And, at last, the rains have returned to normal. “It’s good rice, now. We have had a lot of water,” she said. “It was hard for many years.”

(Additional reporting by Phan Soumy)

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