The stuck babies and the women who give birth for money

Lockdown has exposed the scale of the commercial children’s business in Ukraine, and now women hired to use their utensils are claiming it.

Ukrainian surrogate mothers hired by Kyiv-based BioTexCom Human Reproduction Centre, the world’s largest surrogacy clinic, were left face to face with the consequences of their “work” – children who could not be taken away by the families that “ordered” this “service”.

Biological parents have been unable to enter or leave Ukraine since the borders were closed in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Anxious parents check on the children they have not yet met via video calls, and others have sent audio recordings of their voices to soothe the children.

A thriving business has suspended its work and this is worrying not only for the hostages of the situation, but also requires an answer from the authorities, who were not against this kind of earnings from the population of their own country. Now it raises questions.

In mid-may, BioTexCom released video footage from the hotel to highlight the heartbreaking dilemma for parents and to lobby for easier border closures.The plight of the babies made headlines around the world, but a month later there were about 50 babies left in the hotel, and the Saga casts a harsh light on the ethics and scale of Ukraine’s thriving commercial childbirth industry.

Mykola Kuleba, Commissioner for children’s rights in Ukraine, said that reforming the system, which he described as a violation of children’s rights, is not enough, and surrogacy services for foreign couples in Ukraine should be banned.

However, in an impoverished economy where the average wage is 300 pounds a month and the war with Russia and its proxies continues, many impoverished women, especially in small towns and rural areas, are still lining up to bear children for money, even if they pay a high price for health and psychology, according to campaigners.

In Vinnytsia, a city southwest of Kiev, Lyudmila is still waiting to receive the rest of her fee for the birth of a baby girl for a German couple in February. She regularly writes to her surrogate Agency (not Biotech), which, according to her, owed her 6000 euros.

“They keep telling me that they can’t send the entire amount because of the block”, –  she says.

Despite the fact that Lyudmila, 39, underwent an embryo transplant in Kiev and spent most of her pregnancy in Vinnytsia, the Agency asked her to go to Poland to give birth to the child and register it there. Hospital employees did not know that Lyudmila was a surrogate mother, because commercial surrogacy is prohibited in Poland, as in most European countries.

“I didn’t want to give it away, I was crying,” recalls Lyudmila. She says that after two days of caring for the baby in the maternity ward, letting her go was – “But I knew what it was”.

A saleswoman and single mother, Luidmila struggled for years to find a home for herself and her three children that was better than the one room in the Dorm they had. Therefore, in 2017, she went to a surrogacy clinic, and with this money she was able to get a mortgage on an apartment. Despite the fact that she was placed in intensive care as a result of complications during pregnancy, Lyudmila decided to give birth to a second surrogate child in order to repay most of the loan for the apartment.

There are no official statistics, but it is estimated that several thousand children are born to surrogate mothers in Ukraine every year. Eighty percent of these babies are for foreign couples who choose Ukraine because this process is legal and cheap. Serhiy Antonov, a fertility lawyer, says that Ukrainian surrogate agencies occasionally arrange for babies to be born abroad because it can simplify the birth registration process.

The price of a surrogacy package in Ukraine starts from 25,000 pounds, while the surrogate mother receives at least 10,000 pounds. Prospective parents are generally required to be heterosexual married couples and have proof of a infertility diagnosis.

Surrogate mothers organize themselves on social networks, where they share tips and warnings about surrogacy agencies. Svetlana Sokolova, a former surrogate mother and now an activist for the NGO “Power of mothers”, which helps surrogate mothers, says she has started to receive more complaints about alleged mistreatment during lockdown. According to one group of women, the contract required them to continue implanting embryos in their wombs for a year until they became pregnant. “Thanks to this contract, women have become a kind of property,” she says.

Maryna Lehenka, a lawyer at La Strada Ukraine, agrees with the Ombudsman that commercial surrogacy should be prohibited in Ukraine. Sokolova, who co-owns a surrogacy Agency, instead advocates for a proper legal framework that would protect surrogate children. “Otherwise, it will simply go underground.”

Despite the pressure to regulate surrogate businesses – several bills are under consideration by Parliament – experts and insiders doubt that significant changes to legislation will be made in the near future to curb children’s businesses. Tochilovsky says that if commercial surrogacy becomes illegal, his clinic will simply refocus on embryo donation.

“The future of the world is in biotechnology, and most of the money will go to biotechnology”,-  he says.

Meanwhile, newborns born to surrogate mothers arrive at BioTexCom almost daily and are placed in the hotel’s temporary nursery. A group of Argentine and Spanish couples, some of whom were traveling before the hotel closed, joyfully United with their babies last week, but it is not yet clear when the borders of Ukraine will officially open and to which countries.


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