Bangkok: Cambodia has moved to shut down its booming commercial surrogacy industry that has attracted several dozen Australian couples seeking to become biological parents.
Pregnant surrogate mothers and intending couples now face an uncertain future for their babies in the south-east Asian country's murky and corrupt legal system.
Sam Everingham, global director of the Australian consultancy Families Through Surrogacy, told Fairfax Media that "scores of Australians will be forced to abandon their embryos in Cambodia, along with their dreams of a family".
Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh emerged as the latest hub of surrogacy in Asia after commercial surrogacy was banned in Thailand, Nepal and India.
Many of the IVF doctors, lawyers and agencies, chased out of Thailand after the Thai military shut down the industry following the Baby Gammy scandal in 2014, moved to Phnom Penh where they openly advertised cheap medical costs, the availability of Asian surrogates and no laws excluding gay couples or single parents.
Cambodia's health ministry issued a proclamation on October 24 banning commercial surrogacy. It was distributed this week to about 50 surrogacy providers and brokers operating in Phnom Penh.
"Surrogacy, one of a set of services to have a baby by assisted reproductive technology, is completely banned," it said.
The ministry said commercial sperm donation is also banned and clinics and specialist doctors providing in-vitro fertilisation services will require ministry permission to operate.
Officials have made no announcement about implications of the ban for women who are currently pregnant or the legal status of their current agreements with intending parents.
They have also made no announcements about penalties for violating the ban, or any planned measures to enforce compliance.
In October, Cambodia's justice minister Ang Vong Vathana called for the ban, describing surrogacy as a form of "human trading".
The head of one surrogacy provider, who asked not to be named, told the Cambodia Daily he hopes the government would allow a grace period for intended parents to seek other alternatives for their unborn children.
"If we can't find a legal way to help the pregnant surrogates ourselves, then we will instruct the intended parents to ask their embassy for help and stand by to assist," he said.
Mr Everingham said he was concerned officials had rushed to impose the ban without properly investigating the industry.
"Every country has the right to determine what medical services it provides to foreign citizens," he said.
"I am, however, concerned that such as ban has been introduced without any reasonable inquiry by Cambodian authorities into the local industry, especially the implications for surrogates."
Mr Everingham said many Australian couples were pushed offshore because they were unable to locate a surrogate in Australia, or were concerned about the lack of legal clarity at home.
"It is more critical than ever that the Australian government improve access to altruistic surrogacy domestically for its own citizens," he said, adding that the closure of Cambodia will likely increase surrogacy costs globally, driving foreigners to countries like Ukraine, Georgia, Greece, Canada and the US which have protective laws in place.
However surrogacy costs in the US can be as high as $200,000 while agencies charge far less in developing countries like Cambodia.
Australian couples entered into arrangements in Cambodia despite the Australian government's travel advisory smartraveller.gov.au warning the act of commercial surrogacy, or commissioning commercial surrogacy, was illegal in Cambodia, with penalties including imprisonment and fines.
An inquiry into surrogacy reported earlier this year that "many Australians are pursuing offshore commercial surrogacy arrangements because of the difficulties of negotiating altruistic arrangements in Australia."
Attorney-General George Brandis has not responded to a recommendation from the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs that the government task the Australian Law Reform Commission with developing a model national law to regulate surrogacy.
Cambodia has no laws dealing directly with surrogacy and officials initially indicated they could treat itunder draconian human trafficking laws.
Many of the surrogates recruited to carry babies to be born in Cambodia are Thai women bypassing laws that criminalise commercial surrogacy in Thailand.
Some Cambodian women have been recruited to carry babies but IVF and surrogacy are not socially condoned or widely understood by the country's conservative and deeply Buddhist society.
Surrogacy agencies in Phnom Penh have boasted of successful births on their websites, including babies delivered to Australian parents.
One agency claimed in its advertising that surrogacy was not a matter for Cambodia's criminal code because it related to adoptive parents, contradicting the government's position.