On COVID 19 and commercial surrogacy in Ukraine

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By Dr Maryna Shevtsova

In 2013 I returned to Ukraine from Budapest, Hungary with an MA in Gender studies – not surprisingly it sounded strange to my friends and parents as it did not seem to make me very employable. A month of fruitless job searching made me desperate enough to pay an entrance ticket to a job fair in Kyiv, where I was given an actual newspaper full of job announcements – something I had completely forgotten about in the era of the Internet. Out of curiosity, I looked through it. I stumbled upon a two-pages full of ads promising USD 9 000,00 to women under thirty who already had at least one child and were ready to work as surrogate mothers (as a comparison, an average monthly salary in Ukraine was around 300-400 US Dollars at that time). That was when I found out that surrogacy was a legal practice in Ukraine. As the recent reaction of numerous Ukrainians in social media and on news forums demonstrated, this was news to them too, even though, for the past two decades, Ukraine had already been a popular destination for thousands of foreign couples unable to conceive a child.

Surrogacy scandal in COVID 19 times

Surrogacy has been a legal practice in Ukraine since 2000. Being a cheaper option (surrogacy in Ukraine costs around USD 50.000 compared to USD 100.000 in the USA), Ukraine became an even hotter spot after other popular destinations, such as India, Nepal, and Thailand, banned compensated surrogacy for foreigners. Moreover, this is not only the price tag that made Ukraine such an appealing option. Here is a quotation from the ‘Surrogacy and Egg Donation. Why Ukraine?’ section of BioTexComs’ (a so-called ‘human reproduction centre’ in Kyiv) website. “Ukraine is a European country. This is true… that people’s mentality is very similar and easily understandable for most of the European and American patients… Slavic ladies are famous for their beautiful, slim complexion, smartness, and you will be able to find your best egg donor in our database. Generally, patients prefer to choose a good-looking and intelligent egg donor with strong and healthy family roots to ensure good genes for their future baby.” Such phrasing is not that surprising if one recalls a recent claim by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who, during his visit to Paris in June 2019, claimed beautiful women as “part of a country’s brand.” Nevertheless, before the COVID-19 scandal, there was little or almost no public discussion on the need to address assisted reproduction practices in the country.

‘Dozens of surrogate babies are stranded in Ukraine amid lockdown.’ In May 2020, the news reports portraying rows of cribs with newborn surrogate babies being cared for at a hotel in Kyiv went global. BioTexCom released the scandalous videos trying, according to their director, to attract the attention of the authorities. Due to COVID 19 restrictions, parents from the United States, the EU, and elsewhere could not travel to Ukraine to collect the infants. It took almost a month of joint efforts between the Ukrainian Ombudsman for Human Rights, Ludmila Denisova, the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, Mykola Kuleba, respective embassies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine to figure out have to grant permissions for around 100 foreign citizens to enter the country despite quarantine restrictions. Finally, thanks to specially arranged flights, many families could reunite with the babies born to surrogate mothers. On June 11, BBC posted a touching video portraying an Argentine couple that made it to Kyiv ten weeks after a baby was born for them. The parents cry happily, eager to forget their troubles with red tape and travel arrangements. Yet not every story has such a ‘happy-ending’. Right afterwards, the BBC shows a 4-year old girl whose biological parents refused to take her from the clinic due to health issues. The girl lives in a Ukrainian orphanage, hoping to be adopted.

Surrogacy and female empowerment?

In reaction to the video of stranded babies, the Ukrainian Ombudsman for Human Rights Ludmila Denisova wrote a post on her official Facebook page calling for the changes in the current legislation. She justified it by the fact that once the babies are taken away from the country by their foreign parents, “it can lead to violation of human rights of children and a situation in which Ukraine is unable to protect its citizens.” According to Denisova, the surrogacy services in Ukraine should only be available for Ukrainian citizens. Her words, quoted by the media, caused a broader debate on ‘selling Ukrainian children abroad.’ The Ombudsman for Children’s Rights Mykola Kuleba went further demanding from the government to ban surrogacy completely. Apart from the violation of the human rights of children that can end up in a “family of homosexuals or rapists,” he also spoke of women’s rights, arguing that women are exploited and used as incubators.

While the debates around Kuleba’s claims were predictably divided, in broad terms, between those who supported him and those who did not see anything wrong in commercial surrogacy, it is probably more interesting to hear the opinion of women involved in the business as surrogate mothers.

As it comes out from multiple videos and written interviews with such women, they all oppose the possibility of banning commercial surrogacy in Ukraine. Some of them have been surrogate mothers more than once, mainly because they needed money. Though surrogacy in Ukraine is comparatively cheap and surrogate mothers receive only a small part of the entire cost – from 9 to 15 000 US Dollars – most of them would not be able to earn that amount of money in nine months. At the same time, many women prefer to also frame their motivation as a desire to “help the families that would not be able to have children otherwise,” and some even suggest that they be called “helpers” rather than “surrogate mothers.” They claim their right to decide what to do with their bodies and emphasize the difference between their own children and surrogate babies.

Nevertheless, all of them admit that the working conditions most of them face are far from great. Although the agencies promise to provide comfortable living conditions for surrogate mothers, often, it is not so. Usually, they live in their own homes until the sixth month and then move to poorly furnished flats rented by the clinic. Should the baby be born unhealthy or there are consequences to the surrogate woman’s health, the agency does not pay any additional compensation. During the COVID19 crisis, the situation has become even worse,  as most of the mothers had to become full-time carers after giving birth without any additional payment (not to mention the emotional stress related to this experience). Accommodation costs were not covered during Covid-19 and women had to wait until (when? Until the babies were picked up by the parents?) to receive the remaining sum promised for the surrogacy.

Legal gaps revealed by pandemic

Apart from low pay and even worsening living conditions during the pandemic for surrogate mothers in Ukraine, closed borders, preventing the genetic parents from entering the country, revealed numerous legal issues that have been overlooked for decades by the government. While Ukraine is one of few countries where compensated surrogacy is legal for both foreign and Ukrainian heterosexual couples (or, specifically, couples consisting of a cis-woman and a cis-man), the COVID19 crisis has demonstrated how poorly this field is regulated.

According to different sources, there are around 60 fertility clinics in Ukraine at present. However, they do not report their data to any authorities, so it is impossible to know how many babies were and will be born during the quarantine. As the quarantine began, each clinic was to decide how to proceed, and most of them chose to continue working in a reduced capacity. But, clinics are only responsible for medical procedures related to surrogacy. The rest, including what happens to the baby and surrogate mother until the genetic parents take custody, is the responsibility of the surrogacy agencies. The work of the latter is often even less clear. Their area of responsibility is not clearly regulated under Ukrainian law and very lightly monitored, which results in a wide range of consequences. At the end of April 2020, for example, the Ukrainian police, along with the Department for Combating Human Trafficking shut down a group in Kyiv who used artificial insemination, surrogacy, and false marriages with Ukrainian women to further spirit infants to the People’s Republic of China. Currently, more than 140 Chinese citizens are under investigation alleged to have purchased children. The infants that were supposed to be sent to China are now in an orphanage.

The most active of surrogate mothers have created an NGO “The Power of Mothers” that, apart from providing psychological and emotional support to women newly engaged with surrogacy, also calls for the revision of regulations related to rights of surrogate mothers and the responsibilities of the clinics and agencies.

A simple solution?

Clearly, it does not exist. For a short period, the COVID 19 crisis highlighted a long list of the issues related to commercial surrogacy practices in Ukraine. It is, however, not in the government’s top-10 issues to be carefully investigated and discussed. Neither the reproductive agencies nor surrogate mothers themselves are particularly interested in actively engaging with the authorities out of fear that substantial restrictions or a complete ban will be imposed on the industry. While several proposals from different initiative groups have been submitted to the government, they have been created without including main stakeholders and experts in the discussion. Hence, it is difficult to predict whose interests the laws may serve in the future. The complete ban, as the story with the babies trafficking to China shows, is not a solution either as this will make a large part of the surrogacy industry? Move to the black market, hardly providing women with more protection. In other words, seeing an evident urge for changes and reforms in this area, one yet has to realize that the problem has deep socio-economic roots. Until women in Ukraine face dilemmas like giving birth to a surrogate child or being unable to pay for her parent’s hospital bills or own kids’ education, the surrogacy market, either transparent or not, will most likely continue to exist.  

Dr Maryna Shevtsova is a Swedish Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Gender Studies in Lund. Maryna’s current project focuses on LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers from Ukraine and Russia to the USA and EU Member states. She is now finishing her book LGBTI politics and value change in Ukraine and Turkey: Exporting Europe?  on Europeanization and LGBTI activism in third countries to be published later this year with Routledge.

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