By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's military government gave preliminary approval on Wednesday for a draft law to make commercial surrogacy a criminal offense, following a spate of dramatic surrogacy scandals in the past two weeks.
The case of an Australian couple accused of abandoning their Down syndrome son with his Thai surrogate mother unleashed an international outcry over the "wombs for hire" business that rights groups say preys on poor and vulnerable women in countries such as India and Thailand.
"The NCPO has approved a surrogacy draft law," Pattamaporn Rattanadilok na Phuket, a spokeswoman for the military government, officially known as the National Council for Peace and Order, told reporters on Wednesday.
"We will punish through criminal law those who practice and are involved in commercial surrogacy," the spokeswoman added. "Those who hire surrogate mothers or make this a commercial business will be violating criminal law."
The law is awaiting final approval from the National Legislative Assembly and would then have to be formally endorsed by Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It is unclear how long final approval will take.
Thailand's army seized power in May after months of street protests. The junta has ordered a nationwide probe into the country's shadowy surrogacy industry.
David and Wendy Farnell, the Australian couple at the center of the story of "Baby Gammy", now 7 months old, told Australian television that they wanted to keep both babies but had to leave Thailand with only Gammy's healthy twin sister after the Thai surrogate threatened to involve police.
In a separate case, Thai authorities said on Wednesday they were looking for a Japanese businessman who is suspected of having fathered 13 babies using Thai surrogate mothers.
Police Major General Chayut Thanathaweerat said the man was a Japanese national, but declined to confirm his identity.
"His whereabouts are unknown," Chayut told Reuters. "He is wanted for questioning in relation to these 13 babies and we have reached out to Japanese authorities for assistance."
He added, "We cannot confirm why he fathered these babies. All we know is that the suspect has left Thailand and that he is from a millionaire Japanese family."
The cases have exposed a sinister side of Thailand's surrogacy business, which attracts couples from all over the world who are unable to conceive naturally.
Thailand has no specific law to regulate commercial surrogacy, which is barred by the code of conduct of the Medical Council of Thailand, but non-profit surrogacy is permitted for blood relatives, and individual exceptions may be permitted.
Rights activists say the law could create uncertainty for foreign couples who now have pregnant surrogates in the country.
The Australian government has asked Thai authorities to allow the completion of any current commercial surrogate arrangements before making any changes, but it is not known if Thailand has responded to the request.
(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)