For several years, Ukraine has been the second most popular destination (behind California) for cross-border commercial surrogates for married heterosexual couples seeking surrogacy for medical reasons. The true numbers of foreign intended parents (IPs) accessing surrogacy in Ukraine are hard to discern, but it is estimated that there are between 2000 and 2500 surrogate-born babies each year, due to its favourable legal framework and its significantly lower price tag compared to California. Under Ukrainian law, IPs are recognised as the legal parents throughout the journey, and surrogates have no legal rights with respect to the baby when it is born. After the birth, the IPs are named on the birth certificate as the parents.
Just over a month ago, when Russia's invasion of Ukraine was looming on the horizon, reports began to emerge about many IPs worrying about the danger and planning ways to bring their babies home. IPs travelling (when they still could) to collect their babies were told to bring warm clothing and plenty of cash in case power and banks went down, and to purchase the most flexible air tickets on offer. News headlines then – and even since the invasion just over a week ago – have been preoccupied with IPs' plights and their struggles to reach the border with newborns or with care of premature arrivals or the separation from their nearly- or newly-born babies. Surrogacy agencies were reported to be considering moving pregnant surrogates west to Lviv, or even out of the country, should there be attacks on the capital. But surrogates were reportedly concerned about being forced to move away from their homes and families, the Times reported.
As the days went by and the headlines began to pile up, almost nowhere was there any mention of the surrogates – women – carrying or being prepared to carry these pregnancies. The tone-deaf coverage manifested in handwringing over the potential commercial repercussions, and platitudinous by-lines like 'Make babies, not war', as was seen in Quartz. The entire situation is reminiscent of the 2015 Nepalese surrogacy scandal, where, following the earthquake that killed over 7500 people, 26 babies were evacuated for Israeli IPs, but none of the surrogates were afforded the same safety, as Time reported.
In Ukraine, fertility clinics and surrogacy centres are taking active steps to protect surrogates and babies. The infamous BioTexCom even acquired a bomb shelter to protect surrogates and the fetuses they are carrying in the event of airstrikes over the capital. Clearly then, surrogates are in as grave danger as the rest of the population. Some organisations are offering surrogates the opportunity to be relocated elsewhere in the country, or to neighbouring countries, however they would have to leave their own families to do so. Essentially, these women are being asked to prioritise the IPs and their babies over their own health, wellbeing, safety and families, with very little in return.
Inevitably, the story of surrogacy in Ukraine has resulted in the usual anti-surrogacy sentiments. Social media has been alive with it. However, this time, it feels different. It is hard to disagree with anti-surrogacy campaigners who are arguing the interests of wealthy, foreign IPs have received the spotlight in media coverage, over and above a focus on surrogates and their families, especially given the context of war. While we are not anti-surrogacy, it is still possible to despair about the plight of surrogates seemingly left behind among all the sentiment about saving babies for parents who have bought their service. Only recently has there been any media concern for the surrogates' plight, highlighting the clash between the bodily autonomy and protection surrogates should have, and the security IPs need for their children. Alison Motluk, writing in the Atlantic, captures it well:
'Nothing crystallises the 'her body, my baby' conundrum of surrogacy quite like a war. Should a surrogate be tucked away somewhere safe, to protect the child she's growing for someone else? Or should she be with her own family, or in her hometown, or even out on the streets defending her nation?'
Thankfully, there are some people taking action to try to protect all parties concerned. Law firm Natalie Gamble Associates reports in the Times that it is working with the UK government to try to find ways for IPs to bring their babies – and the surrogates who carried or are still carrying them – to the UK. They have asked the Home Secretary to give pregnant surrogates in Ukraine carrying British children family visas to come to the UK and are working with other law firms and 23 sets of IPs 'who are desperate to support their surrogates'.
Following the initial waves of COVID national lockdowns, leading to news coverage of surrogate-born babies being 'stranded' in Ukraine while their parents were restricted from travel, many Ukrainian parliamentarians called for an end to Ukraine's presence as 'an online store for little ones' (see BioNews 1048). Despite these calls, as well as other scandals, including BioTexCom's Black Friday sale on surrogacy, Ukraine remains a top destination for many foreign IPs. Perhaps now, following this extensive coverage, as well as the consequences of war on the surrogacy business there, Ukraine will become less desirable for foreign IPs seeking surrogacy. The danger, of course, is that – as happened after the Nepalese earthquake – the ability to undertake commercial surrogacy will just spring up elsewhere, possibly somewhere entirely unregulated. And as always, that carries risks for IPs and babies, but also for the women who act as surrogates.