In Laos, desperation drives the surrogacy business. Dozens of fertility clinics ̶ regardless of legality ̶ have fast established its clientele, made up of desperate couples seeking help for their infertility woes.

Since 2015, the polished and modern clinics have used words such as "Miracle" and "Perfect" to ensure they stand out against the surrounding dusty roads and highways in the Laos capital of Vientiane.

Strategically close to the Thai border, rights groups say it makes it easy for communist Laos – one of Asia's poorest countries – to be a transit centre for contraband such as drugs, timber and most recently semen.

In April, Thai police arrested a man trying to smuggle six vials of human semen stored in a tank of liquid nitrogen into Laos for a fertility clinic.

Australian and Chinese clients heading to Laos

"Laos has the best governance. Surrogacy or egg donation is not illegal!" a clinic, Thai Perfect IVF, said in a recent WeChat post in Chinese, hoping to attract clients from China where surrogacy services have been illegal since 2001.

This is just one of many advertisements across social media platforms, drawing hundreds and thousands of desperate infertile couples and singles to Laos to seek for surrogacy or IVF procedures.

“Many are turning to Laos,” said Sam Everingham, global director of Australian non-profit Families Through Surrogacy, which says its conferences and advisory sessions have drawn about 600 Australian couples and singles in the last four years.

Clamp down on surrogacy operations in Southeast Asia

Fertility clinic Miracle IVF Centre in Vientiane, Laos. Photo credit: Phoonsab Thevongsa/Reuters
Fertility clinic Miracle IVF Centre in Vientiane, Laos. Photo credit: Phoonsab Thevongsa/Reuters

Paid surrogacy has recently been the concern of rights groups, due to multiple scandals. It has been forbidden in many countries such as Thailand in 2015, after a series of high-profile cases ̶ including an Australian couple who abandoned a surrogate baby born with Down's syndrome.

Cambodia followed in suit last year after Phnom Penh arrested Australian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles who ran a surrogacy operation there. But Asia's lower costs have been driving hopeful parents to support the business, compared to wealthier countries.

Service packages, from the screening of potential surrogates to the birth of a baby, typically cost USD51,150 in Southeast Asia, says surrogacy agency New Genetics Global, making it the third most affordable option after Ukraine and Kenya.

An Australian couple can expect to pay around AUD75,000 for a baby through a Laos surrogate – less than in the United States, though more than Ukraine, Everingham said. Surrogate mothers only receive about 10% of that sum, yet it pays more than any other job.

One 28-year-old surrogate said she was paid USD8,000 to carry twins ̶ approximately 72 times the country's monthly minimum wage. She was also accommodated in Bangkok during the third trimester of pregnancy.

Laos lacks medical facilities to handle surrogacy births

The bans have channeled surrogacy operations to Vientiane – where, typically surrogates are impregnated in Laos, but give birth in Thailand or other countries.

Medical centres in Laos are also underequipped for surrogate births, particularly twins that result from IVF procedures, who are more likely to be born premature and require specialist care.

"Neonatal intensive care units are only available in neighboring Thailand,” said Everingham, whose group includes two Thai hospitals and two Vientiane medical centres for surrogate births.

With its advanced and sophisticated medical care, it is no wonder Thailand remains as the main centre for surrogate births. In addition, it is also not illegal for surrogates to deliver babies there, although, the surrogate needs to “identify the biological father,” expressed Thongchai Keeratihuttayakorn, deputy director of the Department of Health Service Support.

Future outlook for the "rent-the-womb" business

Nonetheless, the future for such surrogacy operations looks dim. Mainly pressured by wealthier southeast Asian neighbours and multiple rights groups, the Laos government might ban commercial surrogacy.

Rights groups such as Nevada-based Sensible Surrogacy have even warned couples to avoid Laos, and halted such services in Southeast Asia.

"While the government may not crack down for several months... the movement by the government is likely to be swift and comprehensive," noted Sensible Surrogacy, an agency based in Las Vegas, on its website.

The recent alleged sperm smuggling cases have also attracted national attention with the Laotian government carrying its own investigation. There are no laws to deal with surrogacy and there is no clinic in Laos licensed to offer surrogacy services, said Dr Chanphomma Vongsamphan, director-general of the Ministry of Health's healthcare department.

Rights groups are also concerned about surrogate mothers being exploited due to the unregulated environments, making it hard to monitor what is paid to often poor young women, who sign up to be surrogates. MIMS

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