Homeland Security, Babies & Surrogate Mothers
U.S. Homeland Security helped Thailand confiscate "numerous infants," including Caucasian and Chinese, and arrest an American woman and others who allegedly paid Thai females to be artificially inseminated for customers in foreign countries.
At least one baby, born premature in Thailand four months ago, was suffering a brain hemorrhage requiring hospitalization in Bangkok, officials said.
"An investigative lead on an American citizen, with numerous infants in her care, turned into a large-scale transnational organized crime investigation," the U.S. Embassy in Thailand's Homeland Security Investigations Country Attache Leonard Mancuso said on February 26, responding to a request for details.
"In a coordinated effort between Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Thailand Department of Special Investigation (DSI), the Royal Thai Police (RTP), and other government and non-governmental organizations, Thai authorities arrested an American citizen and her employees in connection to an ongoing investigation of alleged illegal surrogacy and human trafficking on February 5," Mr. Mancuso said.
"As the investigation proved to be more complex with a transnational nexus, additional law enforcement agencies, including the RTP, joined the investigation to bring to justice the criminal organization perpetrating criminal surrogacy and human trafficking for illicit financial gains.
"The alleged perpetrator was arrested after numerous infants were removed from her network," Mr. Mancuso said.
The gang successfully smuggled an unknown number of babies overseas for several years until international restrictions on air travel were imposed to blunt the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said.
Those restrictions cancelled most flights and required stringent documentation, allegedly disrupting the gang's ability to fly the newborns overseas to waiting customers.
Authorities said they raided 10 safehouses in and around Bangkok and arrested four Thai surrogate mothers who allegedly rented their wombs for unidentified foreign buyers.
Police arrested three others who allegedly arranged the international deals.
It was unclear if the unidentified American woman was a dual U.S.-Thai citizen.
U.S. and Thai officials announced their joint investigation at a Bangkok news conference on February 5 which included Homeland Security's Mr. Mancuso, Thailand's Cyber Crime Investigation Bureau (CCIB), the DSI, police, and health ministry officials.
They said the gang recruited Thai women on social media, enabling investigators to track their network, messages and transactions.
The gang allegedly offered about $1,700 to Thai women willing to be artificially inseminated, give birth, and have the babies taken away from them.
Customers were purportedly would-be parents who wanted to use their own sperm and ovaries to produce babies.
They needed a surrogate mother but, for various reasons, were unable to find one in their own countries.
Documentation was supposedly forged, allowing the babies to pass scrutiny when they were registered for travel and ownership abroad.
The system was not legally monitored, so the fate of an unknown number of infants sold abroad was not immediately known.
Mr. Mancuso said international investigations would continue.
Officials did not name the foreign destinations targeted by the surrogacy network.
Some surrogate Thai mothers went to hospitals in Thailand for their deliveries, raising suspicion among medical personnel, officials said.
After COVID-19 forced flights to be cancelled, some surrogate mothers also abandoned their newborns at the hospitals.
Other surrogates took the newborns back to the Bangkok safehouses to care for them, officials said.
"Many babies from commercial surrogate mothers could not be given to the clients due to the COVID-19 travel ban in many countries," the Health Department's Dr. Akom Praditsuwan said.
"Some babies appear to be pure Caucasian, and tests have shown that the [Thai] woman's DNA doesn't match the baby at all," Dr. Akom told reporters.
In addition to the premature baby, police said they found at least two other infants, now aged six months and eight months.
Two people from the Philippines who were helping to care for those two stranded babies were also arrested.
"DNA tests showed that their father was Chinese," the Bangkok Post reported.
It was unclear if their father was from China, Taiwan, Singapore or another foreign country, or was a Thai citizen of Chinese descent.
The gang meanwhile was presumably trying to devise a way to export the babies despite the COVID-19 restrictions, or find buyers in Thailand.
Charges against the arrested people included violating The Protection of Children Born by Medical Technology Act, and the Anti-Participation in Transnational Organized Crime Act.
In 2014, 30 abandoned infants were discovered in Bangkok safehouses after a Japanese man allegedly inseminated a dozen Thai surrogate mothers.
People involved in illegal surrogacy schemes can be punished by up to 10 years imprisonment and a $6,700 fine.
People convicted of buying or selling sperm, ovaries, or fetuses can be jailed for up to three years, and fined $2,000.
Thailand has about 100 legal surrogacy clinics.
To receive a baby born through artificial insemination, customers must be married, heterosexual Thai citizens.
If the husband is not Thai, the law requires the couple to have been married at least three years.
The surrogate Thai mother must be married, have given birth before, have her husband's permission, and be related to the woman who will adopt the baby.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his new nonfiction book, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" are available at https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com