Griffith University PhD candidate Dr Maria Antonio wants to drive policy change in the Philippines to prevent exploitation in areas including organ donation, international surrogacy and stem cell transplants.

A Chief Health Program Officer for the Department of Health in Manila, Dr Antonio is also a medical doctor whose research spans the health and trade implications of issues including:

  • foreigners travelling to the Philippines for organ transplants or cosmetic surgery;
  • paying women in Third World countries to serve as surrogate mothers, or “wombs to let”;
  • employment of medical staff such as Filipino nurses to work in wealthier countries.

Dr Antonio’s research is being conducted through Griffith’s Centre for Environment and Population Health (Environmental Sciences) and Department of International Business and Asian Studies.

Having recognised a “grey area” between health and trade policy and practice, she fears Filipinos may be vulnerable to exploitation if regulations are not implemented in response to an expanding international trade in health services.

“The Philippines needs to take the opportunity to benefit economically from the international trade in health services or it will be left behind other countries. However, this should not occur at the expense of basic human rights,” she said.

“For example, a kidney donor in the Philippines currently receives only $2300, while there is no legally specified minimum compensation for surrogate mothers.

“The trouble is, if you have no law in the country then it is technically allowed.”

Dr Antonio said that while transplant patients paid a certain amount for services, in the case of donors — particularly the poor and disenfranchised most likely to be lured by perceived financial gain — there was a risk the majority of payments would go to brokers.

International trade agreements are guided by rules prescribed by the World Trade Organisation among its member nations, but Dr Antonio says the Philippines has no comprehensive regulation around the trading of health services. She hopes to make policy recommendations to the Filipino government after completing her research.

Dr Antonio chose Griffith after receiving positive feedback about its Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Study Centre, part of the Griffith Asia Institute.

The Institute promotes links with government and industry in contemporary Asia and the South Pacific and informs political and economic policy in the region. Its researchers and students are at the forefront of dialogue in fields including security, human protection, international business and natural disaster management.