Olena sat on a bench in a leafy park in Lviv as her two boys ran off toward the playground. Her kids know they’ve moved temporarily to western Ukraine and that she is having a baby, but that’s about it.
The 31-year-old mother is a surrogate for a couple some 13,000 kilometres away in Australia. She said they wanted her to have the delivery in Lviv, which has been considered relatively safe and is a short drive from the Polish border.
Olena, whom The Globe and Mail is only identifying by her first name because she fears being stigmatized, was 13 weeks pregnant when Russia invaded Ukraine. She remembers getting a call from her sister and laughing in disbelief. Then she turned on the television, confirming what she had been told. Not long after, she heard from the couple whose baby she was carrying.
On a warm day in Lviv this summer, Olena suggested that it’s hard to say whether she would have gone through with the surrogacy had she known war was coming.
“I do understand from the moral side, it’s of course hard because of the responsibility,” she said – responsibility not just for her own family but also for the baby. But being a surrogate has saved her and her family from poverty and debt, she added. “I need to raise my children, I need to feed them and the war is taking money not giving.”
In recent years and well before the war, Ukraine has become known for its commercial surrogacy industry, with the country being one of only a few that allow foreign couples to pay for a woman to carry a child.
It’s an industry that has long shown great divides, with critics saying the practice highlights the inequality between Ukrainian women who are paid to carry the baby and the wealthy couples – whether foreign or local – paying them.
That disparity has been greatly exacerbated by the war, with foreign couples from the safety of their homes still desperate to have a Ukrainian woman carry their baby, and Ukrainian women needing financial help now more than ever.
Surrogate mothers who carry strangers’ babies during the war have faced immense challenges. Some debated whether they should – or morally could – flee the country while carrying someone’s child. One woman said she even came to terms with the idea of keeping the baby and raising it herself if the parents couldn’t make it safely to Ukraine.
While fertility clinics and surrogacy agencies paused their work at the onset of the invasion, many are now eager to welcome clients even as the war continues. The Russian invasion has devastated Ukraine’s economy and women need employment opportunities. Surrogate mothers told The Globe they simply need the money.
In Canada, it is illegal to pay a woman for surrogacy but intended parents of the baby can pay for pregnancy-related expenses. In Ukraine, parents using a surrogate have to be heterosexual, married and have a medical reason.
And in Ukraine, the industry has been booming. Though there are no official statistics, it’s estimated that a couple of thousand babies are born through surrogacy every year in Ukraine.
Women who spoke to The Globe said they will be paid between US$15,000 and US$17,000 and have additional expenses covered throughout the pregnancy. They say they decided to become surrogates to provide for their own families. Meanwhile, a couple may pay US$50,000 or more to the Ukrainian agency that connects them with the surrogate and arranges all of the medical procedures.
Maria Dmytriyeva, a women’s rights activist in Ukraine, said as a feminist and a mother, she finds the practice of surrogacy in general despicable – not on the part of the women who carry the babies, but on the part of those who commission them – saying it puts the woman’s health and life at risk. She called foreign couples continuing to seek out Ukrainian women as surrogates during the war “vultures.”
Ukrainian agencies would argue that they are giving women the opportunity to make money – and are not forcing them to do anything.
After Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, fertility clinics closed for some time and agencies worked to relocate surrogate moms to western Ukraine, or some briefly to neighbouring countries. But with the war dragging into its seventh month and with fighting concentrated largely in the south and east, agencies have returned to business and many are taking new clients. And the process for international couples coming to pick up their babies in Ukraine has become faster than in the past, agencies said. Previously, a couple might have stayed in Kyiv for a couple of months, but now expedited paperwork means they can leave with their baby after a few days.
When Olena heard from the intended parents in a Viber text message in the early days of the war, they were offering to relocate her to Sweden. After Olena declined, they proposed Hungary. The couple wasn’t pressing her to leave, Olena said, but reminding her that she could if she wanted to.
“I didn’t want to leave. I have my own apartment, I have two cats. I have my mom, I have a sister who eventually left … but for me I couldn’t leave them behind,” she said, “I could never forgive myself if something happened and I’m not near them and am sitting out of the country.”
In the early weeks of the war, and also of her pregnancy, she didn’t think much about the baby. She just kept her hands on her belly, she said. But that changed when she felt the baby move.
“When I felt the movement, the baby inside here, I started saying ‘Everything will be fine. We will be safe, don’t worry. Both of us will be safe. Everything will be fine.’”
She said she remembers during an air raid alert briefly sheltering in her bathroom, then realizing if something hit her house, she could be struck by ceramic tiles. She moved to the hall where there are no windows and realized it wasn’t safe there either. She stopped reading news about the war, sticking only to scanning headlines.
Since The Globe spoke with Olena that day, she has had an emergency cesarean. She could have lost the baby, she said, but fortunately the baby survived and she is recovering from the surgery.
Julia Osiyevska, the director and owner of New Hope agency in Kyiv, which works with Olena, said both Olena and the baby are safe and good.
Ms. Osiyevska said that at the beginning of the war her agency worked to relocate surrogate moms to western Ukraine, and some even to Moldova temporarily. The clinic and agency closed for months.
Fertility programs resumed in June and, since July, the agency has started taking new clients, she said. But even while the agency’s work was on hold, couples interested in surrogacy continued to inquire about possibilities. “Well, we declined,” Ms. Osiyevska said. “It was too dangerous here. You cannot even understand what’s going to happen.”
She said managing couple’s expectations during the war hasn’t been easy. They want the process to happen as quickly as possible, often telling her: “Just do your magic, do everything possible.”
“But it’s a new reality, right?” Ms. Osiyevska said. “It’s difficult. It’s longer. It’s much more difficult to find a suitable surrogate because many ladies fled Ukraine.
“It’s weird, but people still think that it’s normal and they want to have a normal course and they are very surprised when it’s not.”
One thing parents need to realize is that they might not be able to be present in the delivery room, she said. If there is an air-raid alert, for example, everyone in the delivery room needs to go to the basement to shelter. Fortunately, deliveries haven’t happened in the shelters yet, she added.
Ms. Osiyevska said she has two sets of Canadian clients who want to continue with surrogacy. One couple had a baby with the help of her agency in January and want to proceed to have a second child. The other couple is in the process of getting matched with a surrogate.
She said the process for parents leaving Ukraine with the baby is much easier than it was before the war. Now, they stay for a few days until the agency gets paperwork ready for them. Previously, she said parents were required to make an appointment at an embassy and the whole process could take a month. But now – and depending on the country – her agency typically gives people the paperwork, they cross the border to a neighbouring country and there they start the process of getting a passport for the baby.
Another agency, Biotexcom Centre for Reproduction, said embassies have been very co-operative, issuing emergency travel documents or letters stating that parents are allowed to leave Ukraine with their children.
Jason Kung, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said that since the war began on Feb. 24, GAC has provided consular assistance to 18 families with Canadian children born through surrogacy in Ukraine.
“Consular officials stand ready to provide consular assistance to Canadians in the event of future surrogacy cases, as required. Please note that this may not be a complete picture of the number of Canadian surrogacy cases in Ukraine and includes only cases where consular services were sought,” he said.
On a recent Sunday morning, pregnant surrogate moms filled up Biotexcom’s waiting room in Kyiv. The women are here for regular checkups.
Sitting in a quiet office, Anna, 38, said she is carrying a baby for a couple from Argentina. Now she is safe in Kyiv, but it’s been a stressful journey for her and her husband and their three-year-old, who fled their home in Severodonetsk, which is now occupied by Russian forces.
The Globe is only identifying Anna by her first name because she fears prejudice. Only her husband and mother know about her surrogacy.
Anna spent the month of March in her mom’s humid basement, sitting on the damp floor as water pooled around her. She was 16 weeks pregnant and was supposed to be travelling to the clinic in Kyiv, but there was no transportation. Eventually she escaped in a convoy a month later.
At the time, she worried about the baby and about herself.
“If something goes wrong with the pregnancy and I’m bleeding, no one will save me in a war-torn city because doctors aren’t there, hospitals are occupied by soldiers and you can’t go to a military hospital because it could be bombed.”
Anna said her mother asked her how she could become a surrogate in general. She told her mom that she wanted to help another family, who could also help her and her family.
She said she was comforted by her conversations with the Argentine couple, who reached out to her on WhatsApp. And she promised them that if the war prevented them from reuniting with their baby, she would take care of it and ensure the baby would not become an orphan.
Anna also said she talked to the baby, telling it: “Your momma is waiting for you. Your dad is waiting for you.’” She said the parents sent audio to play so the baby could hear their voices. And the parents have been understanding and supportive, she added, telling her they were going to a rally to support Ukraine.
Lileya Gvozdetska, 25, a surrogate from Vinnytsia region, is a single mom and said she wants to use the money she makes to buy a house for herself and her son.
She said her city is safe and – apart from air raids – life continues. She recognized, though, that the region isn’t really safe, as a city centre was struck by missiles that killed more than 20 people a few days earlier.
The parents of the baby she’s carrying are from Bulgaria, and she hasn’t heard from them. Of the babies born to surrogate moms in Ukraine, she said: “They’re happy kids carried by the most beautiful women in the world.”
Ihor Pechenoha, the medical director of Biotexcom, said currently the clinic has more than 300 pregnant women, with 30 waiting to become surrogates. He said women can be relocated regardless of the stage of pregnancy and the clinic can even assist their relatives living in territories currently occupied by Russia.
Mr. Pechenoha said the clinic recommends that surrogate moms avoid crowded places and strategic locations that could be subject to attack. None of the surrogate moms working with Biotexcom have been injured as a result of a Russian attack, but some have lost their homes and even their husbands.
He said the couples who seek the clinic’s help have been suffering from infertility for years and they view the business positively because “life goes on.”
In 2020, after babies of international couples born to surrogate Ukrainian women were stranded in the country because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mykola Kuleba, who was Ukraine’s ombudsman for children at the time, said that reforming the system was not enough and that surrogacy services for foreign couples in the country should be banned.
Ms. Dmytriyeva, the women’s rights activist, believes that can’t come soon enough. More than 30 per cent of the employable population are now jobless, she said, and women are among the first to lose their jobs and are looking for ways to make money to support themselves and their children.
“So measures have to be taken, like yesterday, including to help women find gainful employment,” she said.
She said with the country facing a myriad of problems, surrogacy has not been a top priority. “The issue is crucial, but it doesn’t get the attention of the government and of the civil society it deserves.”
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