For 12 long seconds, dozens of swaddled newborns in rows of cribs formed a chorus of cries. The babies are among hundreds born to surrogate mothers in Ukraine whose biological parents cannot travel to get them because of restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Late last month, BioTexCom, a fertility center in Kyiv, posted on YouTube a video of the babies that included the 12-second clip. The company wanted to assure parents in the United States and other countries it was taking good care of the 46 babies (and counting). The video showed nannies with masks and gloves feeding, bathing, changing, and holding the newborns, who are stranded at Hotel Venice, a facility owned by BioTexCom.
Ukraine offers foreigners a range of reproductive services, including buying eggs and arranging surrogate mothers to bear children for a reduced cost. The country’s surrogate motherhood business has thrived largely because of poverty. “The cheapest surrogacy in Europe is in Ukraine, the poorest country in Europe,” BioTexCom’s website notes.
A Ukrainian surrogate mother typically earns about $15,000. To hire a surrogate in Ukraine, a woman must show she is in a heterosexual relationship and cannot bear children herself.
The business relies on careful choreography of births and travel that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted. Authorities said as many as 1,000 surrogates might give birth before Ukraine lifts its travel ban for foreigners. BioTexCom alone expects about 500 births, said Albert Tochilovsky, the company’s director. “I’m in a difficult situation,” he told The New York Times. “Hundreds of parents are calling me. I’m exhausted.”
Some parents have reportedly entered Ukraine from neighboring Belarus, which has limited COVID-19 travel restrictions, to retrieve their babies. The Ukrainian government said it is working with other countries to help facilitate that process.
While the crisis calls attention to the parents’ plight, it also raises questions about the well-being of the babies and surrogate mothers.
Some members of the Ukrainian parliament have renewed their calls to outlaw surrogacy services for foreigners. “Ukraine is just turning into an online store for little ones,” Nikolai Kuleba, a human rights official in the presidential administration, told the Times. Lyudmila Denisova, a human rights investigator for parliament, said the practice “can lead primarily to a violation of children’s rights.”
Ukraine does not track surrogacy statistics, but many suspect it leads the world in the number of surrogate births for foreign biological parents.
Other countries, including Cambodia, India, Nepal, and Thailand, in recent years have banned commercial surrogacy for foreigners after stories surfaced of child abandonment and exploitation of poor women.
But images of stranded babies in Ukraine likely will not lead to any immediate changes in the United States, said Jennifer Lahl, president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture: “We will go right back to renting wombs and buying eggs.”
Lahl publicly opposed an effort to legalize commercial surrogacy in New York that was largely led by homosexual men. State lawmakers, joined by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, sidestepped a yearslong debate and quietly overturned the state’s ban on paid surrogacy by slipping it into the state budget in April at the height of New York City’s fight against COVID-19.