For foreign babies carried by Ukrainian surrogates, nowhere is safe
The Russian invasion has placed mothers and babies at risk in Ukraine’s booming surrogacy industry
As Russian forces amassed near the Ukrainian border in January, Delivering Dreams, a New Jersey–based surrogacy agency, rented several apartments in the western city of Lviv, Ukraine. The rooms were for its 28 surrogate mothers living in the capital city of Kyiv, further east and closer to the Russian threat. It was a precautionary measure to calm the fears of intended parents back in the United States and Canada, founder Susan Kersch-Kibler said.
By mid-February, Kersch-Kibler told the agency’s Ukrainian surrogates to pack up and head to Lviv. The women are bound by contract to go where their babies will be safe, but “none of them felt they needed to go,” Kersch-Kibler said. “We had to argue with them and explain we are doing it for the [biological] parents.” The women were permitted to take their families with them, she noted. All but two left them behind.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown its booming surrogacy industry into chaos. Prospective parents in other countries fear for the safety and well-being of their babies, whether in utero or newly born. At-risk surrogate mothers, many of whom are wives with their own children, are leaving behind their families to fulfill contractual obligations. Many are unwilling to leave the country, despite pleas from foreign biological parents. One surrogate told Kersch-Kibler she would tear up her passport if she were required to leave. Others cannot leave without putting themselves and their babies at risk.
Ukraine’s surrogacy crisis highlights the conflicts and dangers of reproductive tourism—especially for mothers and babies caught in the conflict.
For foreign couples seeking a surrogate, Ukraine is the second-most popular destination, after the United States. It has 33 private surrogacy clinics and five that are government-run, according to Quartz. An estimated 2,000 to 2,500 babies annually are born to women who rent out their wombs in Ukraine, where the surrogacy business is largely driven by poverty. BioTexCom, a fertility clinic based in Kyiv, told The Atlantic it expected about 200 surrogate babies to be born in the next three months.
To hire a surrogate in Ukraine, a couple must show they are infertile and in a heterosexual marriage. Most surrogacy clients are from other countries. Under the arrangement, an embryo created using in vitro fertilization is implanted into the surrogate. According to Ukrainian law, the surrogate may not be the child’s genetic parent, but at least one of the prospective parents must have a biological connection to the baby. If third-party egg or sperm donation is used, the donor remains anonymous. The baby is legally the prospective parents’ child from the moment of conception.
Kersch-Kibler said her agency is fielding calls from Ukrainian surrogate mothers who claim local agencies have abandoned them. Frantic parents have set up private Facebook groups to try to locate surrogate mothers, she said. Meanwhile, babies are stranded in hospitals and bomb shelters. Their foreign parents are uncertain how or when they will be able to travel to get them out.
One Ukrainian embryologist helped Delivering Dreams transport frozen embryos, created in vitro for surrogacy purposes, from Kyiv to Lviv, Kersch-Kibler said.
Delivering Dreams has an evacuation plan should Lviv become unsafe. It includes moving surrogate mothers to apartments on the Polish border, where medical care may be unavailable, or sending them to the Czech Republic to give birth if necessary. But delivering babies in a neighboring country means coming under its surrogacy laws. Surrogacy contracts are not recognized in Poland. In the Czech Republic, the surrogate mother would be listed on the baby’s birth certificate alongside his or her prospective father, Kersch-Kibler said. A foreign couple would have to facilitate an adoption to change it.
Numerous media outlets have reported on one U.S. couple, Alexander Spektor and Irma Nuñez of Georgia, whose twins were born at 32 weeks to a surrogate mother in Kyiv. The infants were transferred to a different hospital before the one they were born at suffered damage on Tuesday, according to a CNN report.
Another couple, Jacob and Jessie Boekmann of Costa Mesa, Calif., told the Los Angeles Times about their narrow escape from a Kyiv hospital to the Ukrainian-Polish border with their surrogate-born baby, Vivian, who was 4 days old when they fled.
On Feb. 21, days before the Russian invasion began, BioTexCom posted a five-minute video reassuring foreign parents. It shows a bomb shelter the company said it acquired that “can hold up to 200 people who will feel comfortable here,” said a woman in the video. She pointed to rows of gas masks, sleeping bags and beds, cots for newborns, cribs for older babies, and shelves stocked with baby supplies, food, and “everything people may need for a comfortable stay here.” The company said it can guarantee the safety of its surrogate mothers and their babies.
But unknowns make the clinic’s claims questionable. “This is a slick PR piece. It’s not a real depiction of what’s happening,” said Jennifer Lahl, president of the California-based Center for Bioethics and Culture Network (CBCN). BioTexCom “gives the impression that they’ve got it all under control,” she said.
Lahl said unpredictable, catastrophic events such as this underscore the harm of global reproductive tourism. Ukraine’s surrogacy industry came under scrutiny two years ago after COVID-19 lockdowns left babies stuck in the country. Lahl noted a 2015 earthquake in Nepal similarly left surrogate-born babies stranded. CBCN runs Stop Surrogacy Now, an international coalition of individuals and groups opposed to the practice “because it is an abuse of women’s and children’s rights,” according to its website.
“How many women and children will be harmed before we say this isn’t a good way to make babies and bring them into the world?” Lahl said.
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