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They were surrogates. Now they must raise the children

In Cambodia's weak legal system, surrogacy exists in a grey market, endangering all involved when political conditions suddenly shift and criminal charges follow.

Hun Daneth with the 3-year-old boy she birthed as a surrogate for a Chinese man, and was ordered by the courts to raise after the man was sent to prison, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 22, 2022. (Nadia Shira Cohen/The New York Times)

Written by Hannah Beech

The baby was not hers, not really.

Hun Daneth felt that, counted on that. When she gave birth to the boy, who didn’t look like her, she knew it even more.

But four years after acting as a surrogate for a Chinese businessman, who said he had used a Russian egg donor, Hun Daneth is being forced by the Cambodian courts to raise the little boy or risk going to jail. The businessman is in prison over the surrogacy, his appeal denied in June.

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Even as she dealt with the shock of raising the baby, Hun Daneth dutifully changed his diapers. Over the months and years, she found herself hugging and kissing him, cajoling him to eat more rice so he could grow big and strong. She has come to see this child as her own.

The 3-year-old boy that Hun Daneth birthed as a surrogate for a Chinese man, and was ordered by the courts to raise after the man was sent to prison, among neighbors and family in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 24, 2022. (Nadia Shira Cohen/The New York Times)

“I love him so much,” said Hun Daneth, who is looking after the boy with her husband.

The fates of a Cambodian woman, a Chinese man and the boy who binds them together reflect the intricate ethical dilemmas posed by the global surrogacy industry. The practice is legal — and often prohibitively expensive — in some countries, while others have outlawed it. Still other nations with weak legal systems, like Cambodia, have allowed grey markets to operate, endangering those involved when political conditions suddenly shift and criminal cases follow.

When carried out transparently with safeguards in place, supporters say, commercial surrogacy allows people to expand their families while fairly compensating the women who give birth to the children. Done badly, the process can lead to the abuse of vulnerable people, whether the surrogates or the intended parents.

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Inside one of the two villas where about 30 surrogates, including Hun Daneth, were arrested in 2018, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 17, 2022. (Nadia Shira Cohen/The New York Times)

The practice flourishes in the nebulous space between those who can and cannot bear children; between those with the means to hire someone to bear their biological offspring and the women who need the money; and between those whose sexuality or marital status means they can’t adopt or otherwise become parents and those whose fertility spares them having to face such restrictions.

Cambodia became a popular surrogacy destination after crackdowns in other Asian countries nearly a decade ago. Foreigners flocked to newly opened fertility clinics and surrogacy agencies in Phnom Penh, the capital.

As the industry flourished, the government imposed a ban on surrogacy, promising to pass legislation officially outlawing it. The ill-defined injunction, imposed in a graft-ridden country with little rule of law, ended up punishing the very women the government had vowed to safeguard.

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In 2018, Hun Daneth was one of about 30 surrogates, all pregnant, who were nabbed in a police raid on an upmarket housing complex in Phnom Penh. Although Cambodia to this day has no law specifically limiting surrogacy, the government criminalized the practice by using existing laws against human trafficking, an offense that can carry a 20-year sentence. Dozens of surrogates have been arrested, accused of trafficking the babies they birthed.

Xu Wenjun, center, who was imprisoned on human trafficking charges for his involvement with surrogacy and is the intended father of the boy that Hun Daneth birthed, arrives at court for an appeal, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 23, 2022. (Nadia Shira Cohen/The New York Times)

“Surrogacy means women are willing to sell babies and that counts as trafficking,” said Chou Bun Eng, a secretary of state at the ministry of interior and vice chair of the national countertrafficking committee. “We do not want Cambodia to be known as a place that produces babies to buy.”

But applying a human trafficking law to surrogacy has imposed the heaviest costs on the surrogates themselves. Nearly all of those arrested in the 2018 raid gave birth while imprisoned in a military hospital, some chained to their beds. They, along with several surrogacy agency employees, were convicted of trafficking the babies.

Their sentencings, two years later, came with a condition: In exchange for suspended prison terms, the surrogates would have to raise the children themselves. If the women secretly tried to deliver the children to the intended parents, the judge warned, they would be sent to prison for many years.

This means that women whose financial precarity led them to surrogacy are now struggling with one more mouth to feed.

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From behind the bars of a courthouse in Phnom Penh, Xu Wenjun, the intended father of the boy to whom Hun Daneth gave birth, spoke quickly, his words tumbling out before police intervened. He has been in prison for three years.

“My son must be big by now,” said Xu, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit. “Do you think he remembers me?”

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Documents for the court case of Xu Wenjun, who was imprisoned on human trafficking charges for his involvement with surrogacy and is the intended father of the boy that Hun Daneth birthed, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 18, 2022. (Nadia Shira Cohen/The New York Times)

‘Where did he come from?’

Amid a cloud of mosquitoes, near a pile of garbage sodden from recent rains, a boy ran up to Hun Daneth, still in her factory uniform. She scooped up her son and sniffed his cheek, a sign of affection in parts of Southeast Asia.

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Hun Daneth, now 25, decided to become a surrogate for the same reason as the others: debt, lots of it.

Like nearly 1 million other Cambodians, mostly women, she had left the countryside to stitch together T-shirts and bras, gym bags and sweatshirts in factories. But a couple hundred dollars a month doesn’t go far in the cities.

A scout at the garment factory where Hun Daneth worked told her of a way out. She could earn $9,000 — about five times her annual base salary — by acting as a surrogate.

The scout was connected to an agency managed locally by a Chinese man and his Cambodian wife. Her sister ran luxury villas where the surrogates stayed.

A photo of Xu Wenjun with his son, who was birthed by surrogate Hun Daneth, taken before Wenjun was imprisoned for human trafficking, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 18, 2022. (Nadia Shira Cohen/The New York Times)

Eight surrogates who spoke to The New York Times described chandeliers, air conditioning and flush toilets in the villas, none of which they enjoyed at home. Their meals were plentiful.

Xu, a prosperous businessman from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, was matched with Hun Daneth. The one thing he was missing, he told friends who spoke to The Times, was a son to continue the family line.

Most of the Chinese babies carried by Cambodian surrogates are boys. Sex selection is banned in China, but not in Cambodia. Commercial surrogacy is not openly practiced in China, despite official concern about the country’s plummeting birthrate after decades of a brutally enforced one-child policy.

In Cambodian court testimony, Xu said his wife could not bear a child. But Xu’s friends, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of antagonizing the Cambodian authorities, said that his situation was more complicated: He had no wife and was open about being gay. Hun Daneth said Xu told her about his sexuality. LGBTQ couples cannot adopt in China, and gay or single individuals are precluded from surrogacy in most countries where that practice is legal.

Perfect Fertility Center, or PFC, a surrogacy agency registered in the British Virgin Islands, showed rare sympathy for LGBTQ intended parents, promising babies via Cambodia, Mexico and the United States. The company’s website is illustrated with photos of same-sex couples cradling babies.

Ry Ly with the 3-year-old boy she birthed as a surrogate, in a rural province west of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 26, 2022. (Nadia Shira Cohen/The New York Times)

PFC was founded by Tony Yu, who turned to Cambodian surrogates for his own children. Yu, who is openly gay, said Cambodian lawyers assured him that his agency was legal.

In 2017, Xu signed a contract with PFC, agreeing to pay $75,000 for surrogacy in Cambodia, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times.

Xu visited Hun Daneth at the luxury villa. He told her that the egg donor was a Russian model, and he later showed Hun Daneth and her husband photographs of a white woman with wavy hair standing next to a sports car.

For the Cambodian surrogates, being forced to raise children from other ethnicities can create additional strains in their families and their communities. The children’s features make it hard to explain their origins.

“People wonder, ‘Why does he have brown hair? Where did he come from?’” said Vin Win, 22, another surrogate who was arrested with Hun Daneth.

‘Disaster happened’

The police swarmed past the compound’s marble arches and burst into the two villas, handcuffing pregnant women who had been dozing on their pink-framed beds or lounging on sofas playing Candy Crush.

The police operation in July 2018 followed a regionwide crackdown on commercial surrogacy.

Ry Ly, left, and Vin Win, who were both arrested while pregnant as surrogates and forced by the courts to raise the boys, pictured, they birthed, near their homes in a rural province west of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 26, 2022. (Nadia Shira Cohen/The New York Times)

Ten Cambodian women who spoke to The Times, including the eight who were arrested in 2018, said surrogacy was their choice.

Late in 2016, the Cambodian Ministry of Health announced the ban on surrogacy, but did so without adopting new legislation making it a crime. In the resulting grey space, fertility clinics and surrogacy agencies continued to open up.

The raids began the next year.

Yu, who was not in Cambodia when the police raided the villas, said he’d had no idea that his agency was breaking any law. Lotus Fertility, one of the clinics the agency relied on to perform in vitro fertilization for surrogates, operated out of Central Hospital, a private facility with a strong political pedigree. The hospital’s director and deputy director are the daughter-in-law and son of Dr. Mam Bunheng, Cambodia’s health minister. The hospital has not responded to requests for comment.

“I wanted to do everything legally and openly,” Yu said. “With the fertility clinic, everyone said, ‘Everything is safe, everything is comfortable, they have a good background,’ so I believed them.”

“But then disaster happened,” he added.

Hun Daneth said she’d had a sense that she wasn’t supposed to talk too openly about what she was doing.

Ry Ly, her husband and the 3-year-old boy she was forced by the courts to raise after birthing him as a surrogate for another man, near their home in a rural province west of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 15, 2022. (Nadia Shira Cohen/The New York Times)

A Cambodian employee of Lotus Fertility, who agreed to speak only if her name was not used, said that the clinic filed documentation stating that all the in vitro fertilizations were for prospective Cambodian mothers, even though it was clear many of the women were surrogates.

Lotus Fertility has closed. A representative for the clinic blamed the coronavirus for the closure.

‘Our babies are the crime’

Chained to a military hospital bed in August 2018, Hun Daneth delivered a baby with soft brown hair, a pale complexion and the same wide eyes as his intended father.

After Yu, by his account, paid the police nearly $150,000, the surrogates were released. In total, Yu said he spent more than $740,000 trying to fix the situation, money paid in cash to intermediaries or to anonymous bank accounts.

The government ordered a Christian charity, founded by Americans to combat child sex trafficking, to check up on the women after they gave birth, officials said. Some surrogates said they also had to report to the police station, children in tow.

“It was like we were criminals,” said Ry Ly, another surrogate. “Our babies are the crime.”

Despite the surrogates’ promises to the court that they would raise the babies, a good number of the children are no longer in Cambodia and have been united with their Chinese parents, Yu said.

Xu, the Chinese businessman now in jail, went to Cambodia to try to extricate his child. He contacted Hun Daneth directly, even though the agency had warned him to keep a low profile. He bought toys and diapers for the boy, whom he called Yeheng in Mandarin, a name alluding to karmic perseverance.

Xu submitted a paternity test to the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh. In 2019, he secured a passport for the boy.

A worker from the Christian charity accompanied Xu to the police station to finish up paperwork. The founder of the surrogacy agency warned Xu that it was a setup by the police. Officers were waiting. He has been imprisoned ever since.

Representatives for the charity, Agape International Missions, would not comment on Xu’s arrest.

In 2020, Xu was convicted of human trafficking and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In June, his appeal was denied.

First published on: 27-11-2022 at 14:51 IST
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