Surrogacy was the other target of the Swedish author of an extremely bad book called Varat och varan: Prostitution, surrogatmödraskap och den delade människan (very hard title in any language but something like Being and being a thing: prostitution, surrogate motherhood and the divided person). Other more reliable commentators on the idea of commodification worry about surrogate motherhood, including Arlie Hochschild. For extremists in this area (which Hochschild is not), women should not allow themselves to ‘be used’ to incubate other people’s babies, and they find it specially enraging that richer whiter people should be the ones paying for these babies. In line with the anti-prostitution argument, anti-surrogacy activists feel that sexual and reproductive organs should be employed only for personal pleasure and fulfillment. The presence of money in the childbirth process offends them monumentally, even if the women involved say that they want to earn money having other people’s babies – an argument familiar from the prostitution field.
Here the suspicion is raised that women from Viet Nam were trafficked to Thailand and forced into surrogacy. The person from Human Rights Watch interviewed below makes it clear, however, that at least some of the women involved knew what they were doing. Now the authorities have to try to separate the true knowers from the pseudo-knowers, just as happens after brothel raids. To me it sounds very difficult to ‘force’ people 24 hours a day for 9 months to do what they are told if they don’t want to: if the babies are to be born healthy the mothers can’t be allowed to suffer, after all.
28 February 2011. ABC Radio Australia
Thai authorities are trying to decide what to do with the offspring of Vietnamese women freed from an illegal surrogacy ring in Bangkok. A total of 14 women, half of them pregnant, were freed on Wednesday. The baby-sales operation used the women as surrogates for wealthy childless couples overseas who placed orders for newborns online. Thai police have arrested four Taiwanese, one Chinese and three Burmese nationals in connection with the operation. But the babies have been born into a legal grey area, with Thailand still mulling the ramifications of the case.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Phil Robertson, deputy director, Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, Bangkok
LAM: Phil, first of all tell us about this ring, were the women forced into surrogacy, or were they willing participants?
ROBERTSON: Well, it’s still a bit unclear at this time. The police and social workers from the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security are still interviewing them. A lot of information hasn’t come out yet. It looks like there was probably a mix here of some people who may have known what they were getting into and some people who were forced, but there’s clearly a number of cases where we believe human trafficking was taking place.
LAM: And I understand the surrogacy is illegal in Thailand, so the owners of this company seem to be pretty bold in offering their services so openly. Do you think that’s largely due to government inaction?
ROBERTSON: Well, I think that many people know there is some sort of laxness in enforcement of laws in Thailand. I think that they probably thought they could get away with it. They had on their web site very clearly that there were no Thai women involved. Perhaps they thought because of that they would not come under scrutiny of authorities, but it’s still unclear like many things in this case exactly what they thought, because of course the people have been arrested have not been bought to court. There’s been very little information coming from the authorities beyond some of the general statements from the public health minister that you’ve referred to.
LAM: And do you have any news of the Vietnamese women who now face being sent back to Vietnam after having had their babies?
ROBERTSON: Well, the important thing here is that the authorities treat them in a very – in a way that is supportive of the human rights of the women themselves. There should be a victim-centric approach and I expect that there will be some period of time where they are assisted to understand what’s going on and then we hope asked what they want to do. Many of them may be sent back to Vietnam eventually. However, there has to be a period of time where they are taken care of, because they are in fact victims of this ring and of this trafficking enterprise.
LAM: What about the new parents, the adoptees, the people who bought the babies. Do you think they’re equally culpable?
ROBERTSON: Well, they’re certainly culpable if they knew what they were getting into. They may have also been lied to as well, it’s unclear. But we think that there has to be a thorough investigation in all four countries and there are four countries involved here, Vietnam, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where we believe that they were probably brought through Taiwan, of course where many of the people who were perhaps buying these babies were in Thailand. So far, we haven’t seen a level of cooperation between the four governments that we would like to really smash this ring and indicate this kind of criminal enterprise will not countenanced in the future.
LAM: And Phil, what is the attitude of Human Rights Watch towards surrogacy? If it’s properly regulated, do you have a problem with it?
ROBERTSON: We have not set a specific policy on that issue. In this case, we’re focused really just on the issue of the human trafficking element, the fact that women in some cases were truly forced in this, duped, brought to Thailand where they were probably going to be doing some other sort of work and then forced into this surrogacy. So right now, our focus is on the human trafficking elements of it.
LAM: How serious do you think this problem of baby selling in the Asia-Pacific region?
ROBERTSON: Well, I mean frankly when it first came up, I think everybody was shocked. It’s unclear now. This is something that many people didn’t believe could actually occur. I think now people are going to be very much more watching for this kind of ring. I think many of these companies will come under greater scrutiny to make sure that in fact if there is such surrogacy taking place, that it is voluntary.
LAM: Just very quickly Phil, just very briefly, what would you like governments to do, particularly the government in Thailand now?
ROBERTSON: Well, I think they really need to get to the bottom of this, this specific case. It’s very worrisome that some reporters went back out to the housing estate and found a number of employees of that company still working there. So it’s clear that there has to be a much more significant and strenuous effort made to investigate this case and bring out very clearly all the international elements to it and there should be again that investigation involving all four governments that we believe were probably touched by this criminal enterprise.