And baby makes nine... or is it 13?

And baby makes nine... or is it 13?
Gammy, a baby born with Down's Syndrome, plays with his surrogate mother Pattaramon Janbua's mother at a hospital in Chonburi province in Thailand. Aspiring parents from around the world, attracted by Thailand's good medical facilities and non- existent surrogacy laws, go there every year in the hope of paying someone to carry their test-tube baby to full term.

Fact can be stranger than fiction. Perhaps no more so than over the past fortnight in Thailand, riveted by back-to-back scandals involving babies.

First, there was Gammy, bearing the genes of his Australian parents, nursed in the womb of a Thai surrogate mother, and then born last December alongside his twin sister.

He had Down syndrome. She did not. His parents, according to the 21-year-old surrogate mother Pattaramon Chanbua, completely ignored him but took his sister back home. Across the world, people opened their hearts and wallets to Gammy, who supposedly also had a heart condition.

Then the story got messy: The couple did not abandon Gammy, they said. They did not even know he existed. Gammy had a perfectly healthy heart, said a Thai hospital. His father was found to be a convicted child sex offender. Ms Pattaramon wanted Gammy's twin sister back.

As Bangkok reeled from this drama, nine babies were found in a city condominium last Tuesday, supposedly fathered by the same Japanese man. But this man, later identified by the Thai press as 24-year-old Shigeta Mitsutoki, quickly left Thailand. Police now say at least four more babies were involved. They are asking Tokyo for help.

The big question, of course, is why would anybody want so many babies?

The scandals have highlighted the unwieldy side of the kingdom's medical tourism trade, which generated more than US$4 billion (S$5 billion) in revenue in 2012 from 2.5 million foreign patients.

Aspiring parents from around the world, attracted by Thailand's good medical facilities and non- existent surrogacy laws, go there every year in the hope of paying someone to carry their test-tube baby to full term. The only official restriction on commercial surrogacy is a code of conduct that forbids doctors from performing such procedures. It was loosely policed. Until now.

Since seizing power in a coup on May 22, junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has declared he wants to fix Thailand's "anything goes" reputation, which makes it a magnet for wayward fun seekers and the odd crook.

The authorities have swooped on fertility clinics, forcing errant doctors to close shop. A reportedly prolific outfit in downtown Bangkok, All IVF Centre, shut down last week.

When The Sunday Times contacted it last Tuesday, one of its employees - lowering her voice - said it had stopped arranging surrogacy cases. By last Friday, the clinic was shut. Its slick, informative website had disappeared.

A draft law banning commercial surrogacy is now awaiting consideration by the newly appointed National Legislative Assembly, which meets on Wednesday. Offenders risk 10 years' jail and a fine of 200,000 baht (S$7,800).

The bad press though appears to have grated on General Prayuth. In his weekly address last Friday, he said: "For some matters, there is no need to expand the coverage."

Thailand "is a country guilty of all vices. I do not think it should be this way", he added.

It is unclear how the new law will affect existing surrogacy arrangements, which could be substantial.

About 200 Australians enter into surrogacy arrangements in Thailand every year. Early this month, the Thai authorities said at least 50 Israeli children born in Thailand to surrogate mothers could not leave the country due to nationality issues.

A spokesman for Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told The Sunday Times: "The Australian government is encouraging the Thai authorities to adopt appropriate transition arrangements for new measures they may introduce in respect of surrogacy, so that concerned Australians are not unduly affected."

Would-be parents are no doubt watching anxiously. 

This article was first published on August 10, 2014.
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