Russia’s invasion has not deterred hundreds of foreign would-be parents from travelling to war-torn Kyiv and other centres
In March last year, just weeks after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Remo and Amalia* received an unexpected phone call from Kyiv. One of the largest surrogacy clinics in Europe was responding to the Italian couple by inviting them to the war-ravaged country for medical checks to begin the procedure to have a baby.
At the time, Moscow’s troops were withdrawing from the territories north of the capital oblast that they had occupied for more than a month. A few days later, the mass graves of Bucha would reveal the true horror of the invasion as Russian missiles continued to fall by the dozens into Ukraine’s oblasts. Yet, the continuing conflict was not going to stop the couple.
“We’ve been trying to make the dream of having our own child come true for 10 years,” said Remo, 55, for whom the surrogacy process is continuing. “It won’t be the bombs or the war that will stop us.”
Surrogacy clinics, which have thrived in Ukraine thanks to a liberal legal framework, are still doing brisk business, with hundreds of foreigners coming to Kyiv despite the war, mostly from Italy, Romania, Germany and Britain.
Couples who wish to have a child have to undergo a series of clinical examinations. Once these have been done, and if a doctor has diagnosed infertility, the couple starts the surrogacy process. After choosing a surrogate mother, appropriate agreements are reached between the parties.
If the woman agrees to carry a child, hormonal agents are administered. If fertilisation has taken place, the couple’s fertilised embryos are transferred into the uterus of the surrogate mother.
According to data from surrogacy clinics in Ukraine, more than 1,000 children have been born in Ukraine to surrogate mothers since the beginning of the Russian invasion, 600 of whom were born at the BiotexCom clinic in Kyiv, one of Europe’s largest surrogacy clinics.
“Even in the first months of the war, foreign couples would still come here from all over the world to pick up their children,” Ihor Pechenoha, medical director at BiotexCom, told the Guardian. “The number of requests today are at a prewar level, and we receive more requests than we can take.”
In early February last year, before the Russian invasion, Pechenoha had already prepared his clinic in case of war.
“We set up a bomb shelter with all the supplies necessary for the babies and the embryos,” he says. “We faced some criticism because some other competitors would say, ‘Why are you doing this? You will just scare off the customers.’ But the Covid pandemic taught us to be ready for everything. And when Putin started intimidating Ukraine, we took the threat very seriously.”
Remo and Amalia, like many couples, had been through dozens of treatments before going to Kyiv. Italy’s ruling conservative majority wants to prosecute couples who go abroad to have a child through surrogacy, according to a law that has drawn fire from critics.
“Everything seemed to go against what we always dreamed of,” says Remo. “Plus the age advances for both. This will be our last attempt. And to do so, we were willing to do anything, even to risk our lives.”
Pechenoha explains how at the beginning of the invasion, the Russians bombed buildings several metres from the clinic and how, despite this, dozens of couples came two weeks before the anticipated birth of their baby by surrogate mother.
“I remember this couple from Argentina,” Pechenoha recalls. “They were sitting outside. The woman was just lying down with her head on the father’s lap, and they were just smoking there while air alarms were sounding across the city”, he says. “You think this is crazy. But then, when you see the moment they hold the baby, it’s something so precious and you realise why they came all the way here in spite of the war. You realise why it was worth it.”
George, 57, an engineer working for a US-based corporation, and his wife, Clare, 46, have been through many IVF attempts in the past eight years. Last May, while Russia was striking Kyiv with drones, they travelled from the US to pick up their baby.
“I think any parent would do the same’’, says George. ‘‘War-torn or peacetime did not deter us. If the surrogate mother was brave enough to carry the baby in war time for nine months, we could easily risk one month to go to a war zone.’’
Carrying a child for other people is not a simple task, and it becomes even more painful if a war is raging. In the first months of the conflict, Ukrainian surrogate mothers lived in limbo, with many of them forced to give birth in the clinics’ air raid shelters.
Last year, BiotexCom had 50 pregnant women in Ukraine territories occupied by Russian forces.
“There was one case of a woman from Nova Kakhovka, Pechenoha recalls. “I managed to put her on an evacuation bus, but eventually Russians shot the vehicle. Somehow she managed to escape. She was in her 33rd week of pregnancy.”
The husbands and partners of many of the Ukrainian surrogacy mothers are fighting on the frontlines, and in many cases their villages and homes have been destroyed by the Russians. For this reason many of them, during the war, were hosted in apartments owned by the clinic throughout their pregnancy.
“I just got married to a soldier with whom I have been in a relationship for nine years”, says Tamila, 36, who is expecting to give birth in mid-July for a Romanian couple. “He was wounded near Kurakhove (Donbas) and is going through surgery.”
This is her third surrogacy motherhood. “I am proud of what I’m doing”, she says. “I am a proud mother of surrogate children and I’m glad to be able to help couples that can’t have children of their own.”
Dana’s partner is also fighting on the frontline, in the south of Ukraine. She has four children of her own, and is undertaking her first surrogacy, for an Italian couple.
“The only reason why I agreed to do this is just for the financial benefits”, said Dana, 36. “Plus, since my husband left for the frontline, I need a way to support my other four children.”
Obtaining a child through the BiotexCom clinic costs about €40,000. Pechenoha says more than half of that sum goes to the surrogate mothers.
Commercial surrogacy is legal in Ukraine, but the industry has faced sharp criticism from inside and outside the country, with clinics described as “children factories”.
Several journalistic investigations over the years have reported inhuman and abusive treatment of surrogate mothers. During the war, opposition has become increasingly entrenched; last March, Ukrainian MPs proposed prohibiting foreigners from using the services of Ukrainian surrogate mothers during the period of martial law.
According to committee member Viktoriia Vahnier, a member of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party, the population of Ukraine is falling because to the war, and by 2030 it may have decreased by 10 million. In short, opponents of surrogacy say children born to Ukrainian surrogate mothers’ should remain in Ukraine.
“Surrogate mothers are doing this for the money,” says Pechenoha. “They don’t want to have more children, they just want to support the children they already have.”
Last May, the law was rejected by the Ukrainian parliament.
If all goes well, Remo and his wife will return to Kyiv after the summer to carry out further checks.
“At night the air raid alarms sound,” he says. “Sometimes you hear some explosions, but you see these dignified families. They wake up, open the windows, see what happened and then go back to sleep. Our focus is on these children, our children. Nothing else matters.”
* Names of foreign couples have been changed to protect their identities and privacy.