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A shocking scandal led Thailand to ban surrogacy for hire

Thai surrogate mother Pattaramon Chanbua holds her baby, Gammy, who was born with Down syndrome, on Aug. 4, 2014, at the Samitivej hospital in the Sriracha district of Chonburi province, Thailand. (Nicolas Asfouri/Getty Images via AFP)
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It was a scandal that rocked the surrogacy world: A 6-month-old baby boy with Down syndrome born to a Thai surrogate mother had been allegedly abandoned by his Australian parents.

The boy, Gammy, had serious medical complications, and his Thai mother claimed that the Australian couple took Gammy's healthy twin sister and left him behind. The couple vehemently denied the allegations, but by then the damage was already done.

The recently installed Thai military junta sprang into action -- angered that the country had been humiliated by becoming the "womb of Asia" thanks to the booming industry. Foreign couples were stopped at airports with children who had been born to surrogate mothers.

"OUR AIM IS TO ENSURE THIS STORY GETS NO MORE MEDIA," declared one international surrogacy nonprofit, operating in Thailand, in the wake of the baby Gammy scandal. "The quicker we get this issue removed from the media spotlight, the more inclined the Thai military junta will be to make it easier for all parties."

Senior Thai officials declared that existing laws already made surrogacy illegal unless the parents were medically unable to bear a child -- and even so, the surrogate could not be paid. But those rules had long been ignored, and surrogacy boomed there, fueled by large sums of foreign cash paid to poor Thai women.

On Friday, the government made good on its promise to crack down. The new rules criminalize paid surrogacy, which is now punishable by up to 10 years in prison. It bans foreign parents from hiring surrogates, prohibits agencies from soliciting surrogate mothers and bans all paid surrogacy, according to the BBC.

"The important part is if the couple seeking surrogacy services is Thai or the couple is mixed-race, they can find a Thai woman to be their surrogate providing she is over 25," said Wanlop Tankananurak, a member of Thailand's National Legislative Assembly, according to Reuters.

The baby Gammy scandal, and another revelation that a 23-year-old Japanese man had arranged for at least 16 babies to be born to Thai surrogates, have sent the Thai surrogacy industry into a tailspin.

Friday's ban appears to permanently end all hope that the damage done by these scandals could be reversed.

There is, of course, the fear that the prohibitions will only drive surrogacy into the dangerous underground -- which puts the lives of both mother and child at risk.

Surrogacy can be expensive. In the United States, for example, it is heavily regulated and can cost upward of $100,000. In some states, commercial surrogacy is explicitly prohibited. 

In contrast, in Thailand, surrogacy costs a fraction of that amount -- closer to $40,000 -- which could potentially make the risk of defying the law worth it for some.

But the risks of flouting the law -- despite Thailand's history of lax enforcement -- are higher than ever. And Thailand's tumultuous political environment makes the situation potentially even more unstable.

Two years after India, another hotbed for foreign "fertility tourism," codified a ban on homosexual couples and single people using surrogates, the world of possibilities for people seeking relatively inexpensive options is only shrinking, even as potential demand rises.

"This is incredibly traumatizing," Stephen Page, an Australian surrogacy lawyer, told Australia's ABC News in the wake of the baby Gammy scandal. "If you have waited 5, 10, 15 or even 20 years to have a child and then suddenly the dream of becoming a parent is a reality through surrogacy. Imagine you've been this coiled spring for so long, waiting, waiting, waiting and then suddenly your dreams are almost in front of you and then they're snatched away from you."