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How Ukraine can keep babies born of surrogacy safe

For the second time in two years, surrogate-born babies are stuck in Ukraine. Contracts need to take into account events like wars, pandemics and earthquakes.

Surrogate-born babies inside a special shelter owned by BioTexCom clinic in a basement, as Russia's invasion continues, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine on 15 March 2022.
Surrogate-born babies inside a special shelter owned by BioTexCom clinic in a basement, as Russia's invasion continues, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine on 15 March 2022. (REUTERS)

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Governments around the world are pulling out all stops to evacuate their citizens from Ukraine, but as the war rages on, there is one set of refugees with no immediate hope in sight—the babies born to Ukrainian surrogates.

These babies are stuck in a limbo as the parents who created them live in different countries and cannot come to take them. The surrogates who gave birth to them anxiously seek a way to hand them over to someone responsible and return to their own families.

Unless both commissioning parents come physically and sign the paperwork, the babies born to the surrogate mothers in Ukraine cannot leave the country as they are without a nationality. According to Ukrainian law, they cannot take the nationality of their birth mothers. How and when will parents from countries like Canada, China or Australia reach Ukraine to collect their babies?

Ukraine is the second largest hub in the world for surrogacy with 14 companies offering these services. It is also one of few countries that offers surrogacy services to foreigners. About 2,000 to 2,500 children are born through surrogacy every year, of which nearly 800 are commissioned by foreign parents, reports Al Jazeera. Even as war broke out, there were an estimated 500 surrogates pregnant with babies for foreign couples, going by international media reports.

The babies are not the only victims in this bizarre situation. The women who gave birth to them are also in a limbo. Under normal circumstances, a surrogate would hand over the baby as soon as it is born and go back to her own family. For her, carrying another woman’s baby is a job. She uses the money she earns to educate her own children or improve her family’s living conditions. She is under no obligation to care for the baby, and for how long will the women look after the babies? What if the surrogate has a miscarriage because of these stressful circumstances? Who will help them to deal with the stress they are going through?

A nurse feeds a surrogate-born baby in a special shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine on 15 March 2022. 
A nurse feeds a surrogate-born baby in a special shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine on 15 March 2022.  (REUTERS)

As for the agencies, they have frantically made arrangements to create bunkers for the babies or tried to smuggle them out of Ukraine to Poland or Moldovia. Ironically, some of these countries had banned surrogacy, but made room for the surrogates and babies on humanitarian grounds.

To couples who have gone through years of stressful fertility treatment, the viable embryos they create are as valuable as the babies themselves. A large number of such embryos are stored in Ukrainian clinics.To any parent, those embryos created at great financial, physical and emotional cost are very precious.

The popularity of Ukraine as a surrogacy hub rose after some countries like India and Thailand closed their doors to foreigners seeking surrogacy services. This benefitted Ukraine, which was already a popular destination for Caucasian couples, especially those who needed egg donors. The womb of the surrogate is like an incubation box and her DNA is not transferred to the child she carries. But the same is not true of the egg. Many women having a baby through a surrogate may also need to source eggs as their own may not be viable. In such cases, some Caucasians prefer Caucasian eggs. By 2019, couples from Australia, China and Europe were flocking to Ukraine.

Since surrogacy is legal in Ukraine, the clinics advertise their services, including IVF treatment, providing eggs, picking the surrogate and providing nanny care. Some even offer accommodation for the parents and sightseeing tours. The main attraction, however, is the cost. As compared to $100,000 in the US, a surrogacy package, including IVF, costs $30,000 to $50,000 in Ukraine with everything thrown in. Of this, the surrogate might get about $15,000.

The pandemic had already hit the baby-making business in Ukraine as international travel came to an abrupt halt and the babies were stranded as their parents could not pick them up. Photos of babies being housed in hotels and basements emerged online. There was a shortage of formula and medicine for them. The nurses and nannies hired to care for the growing number of babies were fatigued. At times like these, while there is a lot of worry for the parents who created the baby, the surrogate and caregivers receive little attention.

In 2015, after a devastating earthquake in Nepal, a number of surrogates carrying babies for gay Israeli couples were affected. There was rubble and chaos all around. Israel sent special planes for the parents of the babies to evacuate them. The irony was that these Israeli parents had come to seek the help of Nepalese surrogates because surrogacy was banned for gay couples in their own country. Once the babies were picked up, the Nepalese surrogates were forgotten and left behind to deal with their health issues, which included PTSD.

The carefully choreographed fertility industry of Ukraine looks as if it might crumble as it receives blow after blow. The casualties in this unfolding tragedy are many—the parents, the surrogates, the caregivers, and most of all, the innocent babies.

In India, we have faced problems of babies in a limbo during the initial years when surrogacy services were open to foreigners. Couples came to India not just because the services were cheaper but also because surrogacy was banned in their own countries. The parents from Japan, Canada, Germany and France spent years in India trying to get proper permissions from their own countries to take the babies back.

The Indian government then sent a note to all its embassies asking them not to issue visas for fertility treatment to citizens of countries that do not recognise babies born of surrogacy. As in Ukraine, in India too, the surrogate surrendered the baby immediately and it got the nationality of the parents.

Obviously, Ukraine had checks in place but the laws were not enough. The pandemic should have been a foretaste of the disastrous consequences if the final step of the baby pick-up does not happen. But the Ukrainian agencies are facing the same circumstances again.

There is a need to rethink the whole process of cross-country surrogacy. There should be streamlining and fallback plans. Contracts need to take into account events like earthquakes, wars, riots and pandemics. The agencies need to add have safe houses for the babies in case of such emergencies. And most importantly, countries that take a high moral ground and ban surrogacy should rethink their policies. If infertility is recognised as a diagnosable and treatable physical condition then surrogacy becomes a part of the treatment. Until infertility is legally recognized and properly addressed, things will continue to be chaotic and distressing for the parents, the surrogates and the babies.

Also read: No, surrogacy is not exploitative

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