Given how extensive debates about the legal and ethical challenges of transnational surrogacy have been, you would be forgiven for thinking that a surrogacy podcast around the theme of 'borders' might tread old ground. The story Nadene Ghouri tells in 'Surrogacy, War and Survival in Ukraine', however, offers unique insights into not only the reality of these arrangements, but also how the current situation in Ukraine is affecting both citizens generally and surrogacy in particular.
The podcast is split into two sections, connected by one mantra: 'you've made a good decision, it's going to be OK'. In the first section, Nadene describes her surrogacy journey. She speaks honestly about how it led her to Kyiv – reflecting not only on how her initially negative perceptions of surrogacy changed, but also why she chose to travel abroad. Particularly influential was that under the 'voluntary' surrogacy framework of the UK, she would not have been the legal parent of her child at birth. This decision led her to her Ukrainian surrogate Victoria – who immediately told her that 'you've made a good decision, it's going to be OK'.
Indeed, it was. Their surrogacy journey had a happy ending – thanks not only to the birth of Nadene's son, but also the close bond that developed between her and Victoria. Even so, her experience was peppered with negative encounters: judgemental neighbours, misinformed friends. Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. Infertility and assisted reproduction continue to be taboo and misunderstood. This makes life unnecessarily difficult for those exploring alternative means of family formation. There is clearly an ongoing need for education and transparency as more and more children are conceived through these arrangements. Having intended parents such as Nadene speak openly about their experiences is an important way to achieve this.
The most unique aspect of the podcast, however, comes in the last ten minutes. Three years after their surrogacy journey, Nadene and Victoria had remained in touch. Though this is not always the case in surrogacy arrangements, it is not unusual. What is, however, is the way in which Nadene began to try and 'repay her debt' to the woman who gave her a child. When Victoria took the heart-breaking decision to leave Ukraine with her family because her husband was sent to the front line to fight, Nadene helped them all – including their dog – find safe passage to Ireland. Thankfully, they are now settled there. Again, this was with the reassurance that 'you've made a good decision, it's going to be OK'.
In a time of such global upheaval and pain, it is impossible not to be touched by this emotional story. The podcast itself concludes with thoughts on the importance of kindness, how much better off we could all be if there was more of it around. Of course, it is difficult to argue with this conclusion: we can all do our bit to make the world a better place.
Yet equally, it is hard not to also reflect on the need for systemic change. The podcast itself touches on some of these – for instance when describing the small acts of kindness shown to the family by strangers compared to institutional attitudes towards refugees in the UK. For those with an interest in assisted reproduction however, this story raises different concerns. According to the podcast, an estimated 2000 intended parents a year travel to Ukraine to conceive. As Nadene notes, intended parents and surrogates who entered these arrangements before the war broke out (as well as vulnerable newborns) have been left in unthinkable situations as a result. Though surrogacy relies on generosity, there are limits on the extent to which individuals can guarantee its success. The practice is fragile to extraneous shifts and changes.
The UK government is now issuing visas for surrogates working with domestic intended parents. It has to be asked, however, whether more systemic solutions are needed for the future. Ukraine is not the first time that serious challenges have arisen in transnational surrogacy because of unforeseen crises. From natural disasters to the COVID-19 pandemic (see BioNews 1041, 1048 and 1058), there have been myriad examples of the practical difficulties that can arise when parties are separated by borders.
When Nadene's story emphasises how much good can come of surrogacy, it may be time for regulators to consider whether a more open approach to domestic arrangements is necessary. It may well be in the interests of restrictive states to reconsider this 'nuanced, powerful, feminine, sacred process', particularly in light of the forceful criticisms she makes about attitudes towards reproductive labour and the female body. Though such change may be a daunting prospect for many states, they should be reassured that: 'you've made a good decision, it's going to be OK'.