BANGKOK - Thailand's junta has pledged leniency in the cases of babies born to surrogate mothers, as it looks to toughen rules in the lucrative but largely unregulated industry following a series of scandals.
Dozens, possibly hundreds, of foreign couples are thought to have been left in limbo after entering into surrogacy arrangements through clinics in the kingdom.
Army chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who seized power in a coup three months ago, said in his weekly televised address late Friday that the military rulers would move quickly to find "sustainable solutions".
"We are concerned that Thai women who are already surrogates will not dare to consult doctors at hospitals while they are pregnant because they are afraid that they would be prosecuted," he said.
"The clinics that hired them or asked them to do it have been closed, so it is dangerous for the babies," added Prayut, who was on Thursday picked as prime minister by the new junta-appointed legislature.
"I have already ordered leniency on a case-by-case basis." Commercial surrogacy is officially banned by Thailand's Medical Council, but until recently even top fertility clinics were believed to offer the service.
The junta has vowed to introduce a new law that could result in 10 years' imprisonment for anyone found guilty of involvement in the trade.
In the past few weeks a number of fertility clinics have been raided and some have been closed down.
Thailand's murky surrogacy industry has come under intense scrutiny following recent accusations that an Australian couple abandoned a baby born with Down's syndrome, but took his healthy twin sister.
The couple have denied deliberately leaving the boy, called Gammy, with the surrogate mother, who was paid around US$15,000 (S$19,000) to carry the twins.
In a separate case, police believe a Japanese man fathered at least 15 babies with surrogate mothers for unknown motives.
Earlier this month, a gay Australian couple were stopped from leaving Thailand with a baby because they had incomplete documents.
Thai immigration officials say they cannot disclose how many couples have been prevented from leaving Thailand with babies born to surrogates because they do not keep records.
The support group Surrogacy Australia says it knows of 100 couples who are currently going through the process in the kingdom, which has long strived to be a hub of medical tourism.
Australia has asked Thailand to make "transitional arrangements" to help its citizens who have already entered into surrogacy arrangements.