Babies of Ukraine's Once-Booming Surrogacy Industry Are Now Caught in Putin's Brutal War
The brutal war in Ukraine has already torn countless families apart. But we're not just talking about those who've lost loved ones in the attacks or even the millions of refugees who've had to leave their homeland (and in some cases, their family members) to reach safety. Around the world, hundreds of expectant parents are also feeling a deep sense of panic now that the Russian invasion has upended the nation's birthing industry — leaving dozens of babies born by surrogate trapped inside the country as their parents fight desperately from abroad to bring them home.
International surrogacy has actually become a fast-growing industry for Ukraine
(Or at least, it was until recently.)
“Ukraine has, in the last five years, become the second most popular destination globally for surrogacy arrangements, given the availability of donors and surrogates,” Sam Everingham, global director of Growing Families, a nonprofit that supports intended parents through the surrogacy process, told Yahoo! Life.
Everingham estimated that there could be "well over 4,000" surrogates living in Ukraine, though only one-quarter of them may be pregnant at the moment, and it's unknown just how many may have fled the country.
Either way, the surrogacy trend has been pretty big for the Eastern European country, which also found itself in a bit of a crisis early on in the pandemic, when international lockdowns temporarily separated foreign parents from their babies.
"Over 2,000 foreigners are estimated to engage in Ukraine programs each year," Everingham said. "Americans are a significant part of this group."
According to Susan Kersch-Kibler, founder of the international surrogacy agency Delivering Dreams and author of Successful Surrogacy, the biggest reason for that has to do with the cost.
"Depending on what program you’re looking at, you can do surrogacy there for one-third of the cost of what it would be in the US,” she shared with Yahoo! Life.
"It’s that simple," agreed lawyer Richard Vaughn, founder of the International Fertility Law Group. "Surrogacy there is much less expensive."
(For a bit of context, Yahoo! notes that surrogacy services in the US can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 depending on various factors, including where you live.)
Now that Ukraine is under attack, its once-booming surrogacy industry has been upended in a whole new way
Instead of feeling hope and joy, foreign parents now live in constant fear that their babies — and their surrogates — are at risk of being hurt or even killed inside the war-torn country. They're also riddled with heartache over not knowing when or how they might be united, which feels pretty impossible.
"Given the lack of engagement by the West, dozens of couples are coming to our non-profit each week, desperate for assistance in evacuating their newborn or their surrogate and her children," Everingham said.
The issue has been highlighted by several US parents who have recently shared their stories
Alex Spektor and Irma Nuñez of Chicago appealed to the public earlier this month in hopes that someone, somewhere, could help them.
After struggling to conceive on their own, the US couple opted for surrogacy and wound up going through a well-known agency in Ukraine last year. So when the parents found out they were expecting — and better yet, they were having twins — both of them were over the moon.
Sadly, the twins' arrival was far from what they'd imagined
Because they arrived early and without much warning at just 32 weeks gestation, their parents weren't able to be there for the birth. But sadly, it wouldn't have mattered much anyway. Lenny and Moishe Spektor were born on February 25 in Kyiv, just as the Russian invasion began. Soon, the little ones found themselves trapped inside a NICU ward amid growing threats of more attacks.
For days, their parents fought to bring them home, but the logistics suddenly made it impossible. They spent hours on the phone overseas, trying to find nearby hospitals with bomb shelters in the basement, and they called dozens of pharmacies in search of breast milk after the hospital ran out.
"It’s unimaginable, what can I say?" Spektor told Today on March 1. "It’s impossible to wrap your mind around."
Despite their panic, the couple also felt somewhat lucky
The twins, who needed specialized care because of their prematurity, were certainly in a dangerous situation, but they were being closely tended to by a pediatrician as well as the couple's surrogate, who stayed behind instead of fleeing. Both kept in constant contact with the couple in the days that followed, giving them updates on the babies' progress and sending video footage whenever possible.
Finally, roughly two weeks after the infants were born, their parents got the miracle they'd been waiting for. A group of volunteers through Project Dynamo organized a "daring rescue operation" and were able to get the twins safely to Poland, according to NBC News.
Now that the twins are out of harm's way, they'll remain at a NICU ward in Poland until they're strong enough to fly home. For now, at least, their parents can breathe a sigh of relief — but only thanks to the kind strangers who helped them.
The rescue of the Spektor twins isn't the only one to make headlines.
Another incredible story of hope and survival was shared by Dr. Jessie Boeckmann, an ophthalmologist from Costa Mesa, California, on Instagram last month. Boeckmann and her husband, Jacob, were thrilled to welcome a healthy daughter in Kyiv on February 22, 2022, and were especially grateful to be there to witness it.
They too, however, suddenly found themselves shifting from joy to panic as the Russian military began to invade and long lines of traffic prevented them from crossing the country's border.
"On Feb 24 at 6:00 a.m., I awoke to explosions," the new mother wrote on Instagram. "We immediately contacted our driver to pick us up to start our journey to the temporary US embassy in L’viv, Ukraine. We left the hospital despite the protests of the nursing staff."
Along with their 4-day-old infant, the couple fled in a taxi and headed toward the Ukrainian-Polish border. But because so many people in Ukraine were trying to do the same thing at the very same time, traffic backed up for miles.
Ultimately, the couple endured a 27-hour car ride, only to have to get out and walk the remaining seven miles just so they could cross the border. Still, they did it — and all three are at home in California.
A couple from Florida is also feeling grateful right now
Ami and Michael Kowalski, who live in Florida, arrived in Kyiv, Ukraine, for their daughter's birth just days before the Russian invasion. According to Today, their surrogate uktimately went into labor while hiding in a bomb shelter, but luckily, all went well.
Their daughter Charlotte was born safe and healthy, but just one hour after her birth, they were urged to flee. So they did.
The couple slowly made their way toward Slovakia and finally crossed the border when their baby was just 5 days old. Along the way, Ami told Today that the couple was "guided" by strangers who looked after them and helped them find safety.
“Every turn of this story is just angels that were there and supported us, like I would never have imagined,” the mother shared.
In fact, one of those kind strangers — a Ukrainian woman named Marina — left a special impression on both of the Kowalskis. That feeling was so strong that they even chose to name their daughter Charlotte Marina in her honor.
"She wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” Ami Kowalski said.
Finally, on March 14, the couple landed in Jacksonville with their little girl. Although both of the parents are breathing a deep sigh of relief, they are well aware that so many more parents, babies, and children, are still fighting to come home.
“I don’t think we’ll be fully relieved until we’re home to be honest,” Ami Kowalski told Today before the couple boarded their return flight. "But we’re safe now. And that’s the biggest thing."