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Lives for Sale: The Hidden Horrors of Ukraine’s Surrogacy Industry by Georgia L. Gilholy

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Lives for Sale: The Hidden Horrors of Ukraine’s Surrogacy Industry

46 newborns in the 'baby room' in the Venice Hotel in Kyiv who were conceived as the result of surrogacy arrangements. During the COVID-19 lockdown, they waited several months to picked up by customers from around the world.

Photo: BioTexCom

Ukraine has perhaps witnessed the full spectrum of manmade evils over the past century of its history: civil war, engineered starvation, Communist purges, Nazi genocide, corruption at the hands of an oligarchy; now, once again, its vast steppes are the setting of a brutal military conflict. The horror of war has also shone a spotlight on another of Ukraine’s woes, namely its sprawling surrogacy sector.

Commercial surrogacy is the process whereby a woman receives payment to become pregnant, with the intention of giving the child to another person, or couple, upon birth. It is illegal in most countries, often leading wealthy clients to look to women in India and Thailand, where poverty is widespread and surrogacy laws have historically been lax.

Following a succession of high-profile scandals, both India and Thailand have rolled back their previously relaxed standards. Since 2015, the industry has consequently surged in Ukraine, as European ‘customers’ have sought out locations closer to home, against the backdrop of intensifying chaos in the country following Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014.

However much we may wish to view these contracts as the decisions of free and informed adults, they are predatory by default. All authorities in Europe and beyond are indirectly complicit as long as they allow their citizens to participate in such arrangements. Ukrainian women are normally paid between €11,800 and €17,800 per surrogate pregnancy. While a fee of this level would certainly go further in Ukraine than it would in most Western countries, it is a sufficiently small amount of money to indicate that it is the very poorest among the nation’s women that are entering into such contracts. 

Any attention paid towards Ukraine’s surrogacy ‘industry’ following the advance of Russian forces on its borders, including articles in mainstream sources such as the Irish Times, the BBC, and The Times, have either prioritised the eagerness of overseas ‘commissioning’ couples looking to evacuate their babies, or have focused on the potential economic consequences of disruption to the sector. 

This blind-sightedness predates the current crisis. A Times report posted during the initial COVID pandemic interviewed just one surrogate mother, using her agent as a translator. To date, very few news items appear to ask any questions at all about the experience or treatment of the surrogate mothers themselves. 

While articles depict grinning Westerners who have secured the evacuation of a baby from the war zone, somewhere there is a woman who has just been removed from a child whom she has carried for nine months. It is hardly surprising that many surrogates experience complex, unanticipated, emotional traumas following the parting with a child with whom they have shared a life-changing experience. Beyond the unanticipated emotional trauma experienced by the surrogate mothers, there is the trauma which will affect the child, who will grow up to learn that his life was brought about by the hiring of a woman’s womb, a woman—from whom he has been deliberately separated—who he may come to think he had a natural right to know.

Today, countless surrogate mothers have been left to suffer the consequences of war while the children to whom they have given birth are shipped to overseas commissioning couples. In other cases, still-pregnant women have complained of pressure from foreign couples urging them to leave Ukraine, whether or not they have family or employment keeping them there. Moreover, COVID resulted in many impoverished surrogate mothers caring for the babies they had been paid to carry, as travel restrictions delayed the transportation of these children to the commissioning couples.

Such scenes have continued to unveil commercial surrogacy for what it really is: the ill-treatment of usually desperate women for the benefit of wealthy foreign couples. Just like the lie of the “happy hooker” (cited regularly by feminist writer Julie Bindel in her opposition to decriminalising prostitution), surrogate mothers are—like most ‘sex workers’—driven into such arrangements by desperation and destitution.

If any other contracted workers were abused in this manner, progressive and liberal commentators would make no secret of their outrage. But no matter what our choice-obsessed world would like to believe, surrogacy is not simply another type of ‘work.’ While many are happy to dismiss concerns over surrogacy, branding it a charitable exchange is far from the reality. People who contract a woman in Ukraine (or elsewhere) to undergo a pregnancy with the purpose of taking the child away are prioritising selfish desire over the welfare of both the woman and child. Real altruism would never require the commodification of a human being in this way.

Globally, millions of children are awaiting adoption or foster care. In Ukraine in particular, the horrors of the Soviet Union and the ensuing damage to many family bonds, as well as widespread substance abuse, have left around 100,000 children in the country’s often ill-equipped orphanages. Governmental support of these homes was already poor prior to this year’s war.

Sadly, adoption agencies—especially international ones—are often problematic, but their services remain a far better option compared to the abusive surrogacy industry. Adoption and foster care help to meet the needs of an existing child, while surrogacy looks to make a specific human, as if it were a build-your-own commodity that couples can reject if it does not match up with what they ordered.

Unsurprisingly, the inter-jurisdictional arrangements that commercial surrogacy often require, prompts legal (and moral) chaos when disputes occur over a child’s ‘true’ parentage. In Ukraine, surrogacy-friendly laws identify the couple (or individual) contracting a surrogate as the child’s legal post-birth parents (or parent). And yet, as Ukraine’s child-welfare ombudsman Nikolai Kuleba has explained, there is no legal obligation for foreign couples to collect the child they’ve “ordered.”

In 2019, an ABC investigation located a three-year-old child living in Sonechko Children’s Home in Kyiv. The little girl, named Bridget, had been carried by a surrogate mother escaping Donetsk, an eastern region where Russian-backed proxies have sparked conflict since 2014. Due to her physical and mental disabilities, seemingly caused by her premature birth, her U.S.-based biological parents refused to take her home. ABC reported that the parents, whose sperm and egg created Bridget in vitro, had demanded that she be taken off life support while battling postpartum health problems. The nurse responsible for much of Bridget’s care has attempted to contact her parents in the U.S. since their abandonment of her, but has received no response. This case is not an outlier. The abandonment of children like Bridget is the direct result of ‘commissioning couples’ treating their children like commodities that are purchased, sold, and dismissed as defective if they fail to fulfil the expectations of the ‘customer.’

In 2014, an Australian couple made headlines when they refused to take home a baby born to a surrogate in Thailand because he had Down’s Syndrome. They had demanded that the baby be aborted, but the surrogate had refused. The couple decided to accept her twin, who was born without the condition. The twins were separated, with the ‘acceptable’ child taken by the couple, despite the father’s previous convictions for child sex abuse.

Our acceptance of commercial surrogacy shows how disconnected we have become from reality. So psychologically distant is the natural world from us that we deem it reasonable to outsource or subcontract our most intimate and transformative experiences, just as we might relocate a factory to where labour costs are lower. If the majority of European governments are content to keep surrogacy illegal, why do they so often permit their citizens to legally exploit foreign women for this purpose? As surrogacy rates rocket, many countries face campaigns to loosen their laws on this issue. Whilst couples who have fertility problems should receive our sympathy, a desire to raise children is no justification for commodifying vulnerable people, and violating the mother-child bond. 

Are we Westerners happy to facilitate the trauma inherent in commercial surrogacy, just so long as the grim reality plays out in a faraway land that we perceive as inferior to our own? Why are we allowing corporations to profit both from the desperation of people struggling with infertility and women in poverty? These corporate forces have no place in a civilised economy, and European countries must collaborate to prevent their ability to operate transnationally.

Given that all surrogacy requires the commodification of human beings, no mere restraints can sufficiently satisfy the need to safeguard the welfare of babies born in such a scenario. Such child-welfare must always trump the self-serving demands of adults.

Georgia L. Gilholy is a journalist and researcher living in London.