In June last year 33 pregnant women were arrested and charged with human trafficking in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. All were surrogate mothers bearing children for foreign customers in exchange for money.

They have since been released - but on the condition that they must raise the children until their 18th birthday or face up to 20 years in jail. 

One young woman, Thida, could never afford to have children but she was told that if she became a surrogate to a foreigner’s child she would earn $10,000. This would give her enough money to start her own family. So, when a representative from a surrogacy agency visited her village, she put her name forward, and was accepted as a surrogate.

“If I had known it was illegal, I would never have done it,” Thida says. 

In fact, commercial surrogacy had already been banned for more than a year when she had the fertilised egg from a Chinese couple implanted in her womb, but the ban had only recently begun to be enforced. 

Surrogacy is where a woman carries and gives birth to a child with the intention of handing the child over to a person or couple, known as the intended parent(s), who will raise the child as their own. Commercial surrogacy refers to any surrogacy arrangement in which the surrogate mother is compensated for her services beyond reimbursement of medical expenses. 

Three days after the birth, the baby’s Chinese parents arrived. Thida caught a glimpse of the wife from the hospital window. The father gave a hospital guard a $100 bribe and entered the ward with a Khmer translator. “He held the baby and cried like his heart was broken,” says Thida. “I really felt so sorry for him.” He spent 20 minutes with his son, then rejoined his wife outside. 

Thida was never allowed to hand the baby over to his Chinese parents and she will never receive the $10,000 she was promised by the agency. It was made clear that she and the other surrogate mothers will be continuously monitored to check that they have not given the child to the intended parents. 

Commercial or legally binding surrogacy arrangements are illegal in the UK. Only altruistic surrogacy is permitted. There are certain rules that you have to abide by when going through surrogacy and it is important to get legal advice at an early stage, before you start the treatment process. 

There are various routes to parenthood and however you decide to start a family, our surrogacy and fertility law specialists can advise you on the legal and ethical implications of your decision. We can assist you with parental rights, consent to treatment, donor rights, freezing your eggs/sperm, surrogacy and adoption. 

If you are hoping to start a family or have any queries, please contact the surrogacy and fertility law specialists in our Family Law team on 0161 941 4000 or email