How a Thai baby with Down syndrome raised questions about global surrogacy


Pattaramon Chanbua, right, kisses her baby boy Gammy at a hospital in Chonburi province, southeastern Thailand, on Aug. 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

It’s a tale with few specifics that has nonetheless produced an international melodrama.

What it does have: an impoverished 21-year-old Thai food vendor, a beautiful baby boy with Down syndrome and the shadowy surrogacy trade. The Thai surrogate mother, Pattaramon Chanbua, recently said an unnamed Australian couple left her to care for their boy, who has Down syndrome — but took his healthy twin sister after Pattaramon refused to have an abortion.

What the story so far doesn’t have: many details beyond those provided by Pattamaron. The Australian family hasn’t been identified by name, though a man described as the father has been interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and denies part of her story. The Bangkok surrogacy agency the Thai woman says she worked with has not been identified, either.

But even with little corroboration, the story spawned a fund for the child that collected $216,000, reached the highest echelons of Australian society and stirred calls for change as the Australian government considers intervening.

“It’s a very, very sad story,” the Wall Street Journal quoted Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott saying. “It illustrates some of the pitfalls involved in this particular business.”

This particular business is the controversial surrogacy industry. It involves one woman carrying another woman’s child for profit, and many countries, such as Germany and France, ban it outright. Other nations restrict the practice in different ways — in the United States, for example, enforcement falls to the states. But in developing nations such as Thailand — where there are few restrictions on surrogacy, and predatory agencies link up cash-strapped mothers with wealthy foreigners — it’s a booming industry.


Pattaramon Chanbua and Gammy. (Nicolas ASFOURINICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

Pattaramon says she was one such mother. The food vendor, whose monthly family salary was $622, claims she stumbled upon the Bangkok agency on Facebook early last year and was enticed by the pay. “I agreed because the compensation is high,” she explained to the Journal.

It’s unclear how high. She told the Journal the unnamed agency promised her $10,890 — but also told the Associated Press it was $9,300. Then the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported it was $16,000.

She says after she got pregnant with the Australians’ child, she noticed something amiss in the second trimester. Doctors, she said, confirmed there was something wrong with the boy, now named Gammy. But the agency didn’t tell her, she said. It told the Australian family. “The parents of the baby knew, but didn’t tell me until I was seven months pregnant,” she told the Journal.

Seven months in, she said, the agency told her one of the twins would be born with Down syndrome and suggested she have an abortion. She told the Associated Press she was disgusted by the idea. “I asked them, ‘Are you still humans?'” she said. “I really wanted to know.”

But it’s unclear what happened after she gave birth. The Sydney Morning Herald reports she said the father, in his 50s, “came to the hospital to take care of the girl but never looked Gammy in the face or carried him. He did not buy milk for Gammy. He only bought milk for the girl. The twins stayed next to each other but the father never looked at Gammy … not one bottle of milk did he give Gammy.”

She then said the father took his daughter but abandoned his son, who came down with a lung infection. Afterward, the agency allegedly stiffed her for thousands of dollars.

But the parents, interviewed but not identified by the Australian Broadcasting Corp., denied they abandoned their son. The father said the clinic told them only about the girl — and they were told the agency no longer existed. The father in the ABC article wasn’t quoted, and the ABC offered no more information about him.

On Monday morning, Pattaramon reacted angrily to that report. She said she had forgiven the Australian family — but now took it back. “I am very upset that the family said like that,” the Sydney Morning Herald quoted her saying. “I really want him to come to Thailand to see me…. I would like to talk with him in front of the media. No one can lie and the truth will come in the public … people who don’t know me will think I’m a bad person.”

Gammy has reportedly responded well to treatment of his lung infection.

Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.

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