How Russia’s invasion is affecting Ukraine’s surrogacy industry, leaving intended families ‘desperate for assistance’
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is creating ripple effects felt around the globe, from soaring gas prices to fears of a potential nuclear war. But a less-obvious industry being affected by the war is surrogacy — a thriving business in Ukraine.
That’s never been more apparent as headline after headline shows couples from the U.S. and other countries fleeing Ukraine with their newborn babies. Dr. Jessie Boeckmann, an ophthalmologist in Costa Mesa, Calif., and her husband Jacob shared on Instagram that they escaped with their 4-day old baby, born from a Ukrainian surrogate, enduring a 27-hour taxi ride by a kind driver and eventually having to walk seven miles to reach the Ukrainian-Polish border. (Boeckmann did not respond to Yahoo Life’s interview request.)
Another American couple, Ami and Michael Kowalski from Florida, fled Ukraine for Slovakia with their 5-day-old daughter, after their Ukrainian surrogate reportedly went into labor in a bomb shelter.
A Chicago couple, Alex Spektor and Irma Nuñez, whose premature twins were born via a Ukrainian surrogate, enlisted Project Dynamo — a Florida-based organization that rescues people in war zones, including now Ukraine — to evacuate their twins and their Ukrainian surrogate. The babies were brought safely to a hospital in Poland, where Spektor and Nuñez were able to meet their twins for the first time.
However many dramatic rescue stories there are making headlines, there are likely just as many anxious intended parents in the U.S. (and elsewhere) with Ukrainian pregnant surrogates stuck near a dangerous war zone or frozen embryos currently in limbo.
“The war has led to immense panic amongst foreign-intended parents who feel completely helpless to protect their surrogate and unborn child,” Sam Everingham, global director of Growing Families, a nonprofit that supports intended parents through the surrogacy process, tells Yahoo Life. “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 estimates that there could be “well over 4,000” surrogates in Ukraine, “although perhaps only a quarter of these are currently pregnant.”
Why is Ukraine popular with Americans seeking surrogates?
Some may be surprised to find out that Ukraine is a popular choice for foreign couples in need of a gestational surrogate. “Ukraine has, in the last five years, become the second most popular destination globally for surrogacy arrangements, given the availability of donors and surrogates,” says Everingham.
He adds, “Over 2,000 foreigners are estimated to engage in Ukraine programs each year. Americans are a significant part of this group.”
There are several factors that make surrogacy in Ukraine appealing to couples from the U.S. and other countries. “One is cost because, 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 U.S.,” Susan Kersch-Kibler, founder of the international surrogacy agency Delivering Dreams and author of Successful Surrogacy, tells Yahoo Life.
Attorney Richard Vaughn, founder of the International Fertility Law Group, agrees, telling Yahoo Life, “There is truth in the fact that people are drawn to Ukraine because of cost. It’s that simple. Surrogacy there is much less expensive.”
At Kersch-Kibler’s Delivering Dreams, couples who use their own embryos can expect to spend $55k (if they’re using a donor, then it’s $60k). The agency’s “guaranteed live birth programs,” which offer unlimited IVF cycles and embryo transfers “until you have a healthy child,” says Kersch-Kibler, start at $74k.
Compare that to surrogacy services in the U.S., which can cost around $100,000 to as high as $200,000, “depending on where you live, who your gestational carrier is, and just exactly what fertility services you need along the way,” according to CoFertility, a site that provides resources and answers to common fertility-related questions. That leaves many U.S. citizens “priced out of the U.S. alternatives,” notes Everingham.
Ukraine’s laws are another factor. “Ukraine is one of only five countries globally that has laws that allow foreign parents to be placed on the birth certificate,” says Everingham.
Kersch-Kibler explains that only the biological mother and father are on the birth certificate, “so no mention of a surrogate or donor is used,” she says, “and there’s no adoption [necessary], so the child is born a U.S. citizen.”
She refers to Michigan, for example, where the law “does not automatically recognize babies born to surrogates as the legal children of their biological parents,” according to the New York Times. Surrogates can be put on birth certificates, leaving biological parents in the position of having to adopt their own children.
What’s more, compensated surrogacy — paying a woman for carrying a couple’s child, which has been legal in Ukraine since 2002— isn’t allowed in every state or country.
Thailand, India and Nepal, which used to allow compensated surrogacy for foreigners, have since banned the practice following reports of “widespread exploitation of women,” according to Al Jazeera.
In the U.S., surrogacy laws differ in each state. New York State, for example, only recently legalized compensated gestational surrogacy, points out Vaughn, with the Child-Parent Security Act, which took effect on Feb. 15, 2021. Before that, compensated surrogacy was illegal in the state. (You can check the surrogacy laws of each state through the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s site here.)
For people who live in states, such as Michigan and Louisiana, where paid surrogacy is illegal, or Arizona and Nebraska, where compensated surrogacy contracts are unenforceable, “altruistic surrogacy is really the only option,” explains Vaughn, meaning “having a friend or family member carrying a baby for you, or someone who wants to do it out the goodness of their heart.” Adds Vaughn, “It’s a much bigger hurdle to cross.”
Although couples can be matched with surrogates in more surrogacy-friendly states, like California, which expressly permits it, the cost is often prohibitive — which makes Ukraine a more appealing option for some.
When it comes to surrogacy, “it’s no one’s first choice,” explains Kersch-Kibler. “Some of these couples have gone through nine IVF cycles and miscarriage after miscarriage after miscarriage. This is something they turn to as a last resort.”
How does the Ukraine surrogacy process work?
For foreign couples to be eligible for surrogacy in Ukraine, there are certain legal requirements. For example, you have to be a legally married heterosexual couple, which excludes same-sex couples, umarried partners and single women and men.
The surrogate in Ukraine has to be gestational only, “so not biologically related” to the baby, says Kersch-Kibler. “If the couple is using a donor it has to be a third party donor.” However, “one of the parents must have a biological link” to the baby, explains Kersch-Kibler. “So you can’t do both donor egg and donor sperm” with a gestational surrogate.
Couples using their own eggs and/or sperm need to have some medical tests done (including sperm count and an ultrasound of a woman’s ovaries), which are reviewed by the agency’s embryologist to determine “a realistic idea of their chances,” says Kersch-Kibler.
After signing a contract and making a deposit (for Delivering Dreams, it’s $5,000), the agency helps couples complete the required legal documents and helps them get accepted into a Ukrainian surrogacy program. “If, for some reason, they can’t get accepted into a program, we would refund them in full,” Kersch-Kibler explains.
For couples using a donor, which are anonymous in Ukraine, “you will receive photos, height, weight, level of education, and medical history,” according to Delivering Dream’s site. Otherwise, the couple’s sperm and/or eggs are frozen and shipped to Ukraine, with embryos typically being created there, notes Kersch-Kibler. Once the fertilized eggs reach the blastocyst stage (five or six days after fertilization), they're frozen and couples are then matched with a surrogate, which takes about two weeks, explains Kersch-Kibler.
She notes that Ukraine gestational surrogates with her agency get $24k as compensation. To put that in perspective, the average annual household income in Ukraine is under $1,600 in U.S. dollars. “The surrogate is giving you a life-changing, amazing gift and you are doing the same for her,” Kersch-Kibler says.
The IVF process with the surrogate then follows, and the embryos are implanted. Once a surrogate is pregnant, the couple is given regular updates and can go on Viber “where they can talk to their heart’s content” with the surrogate, says Kersch-Kibler. “They can hear the child’s heart beat, and can record themselves reading stories” so the baby can hear their parent’s voices. “It’s really important and we want to do as much as possible for bonding,” she says.
Adds Kersch-Kibler, “The couples don’t have to come to Ukraine until the child is born” or about to be born.
Of course, with the war, so much of that has changed.
How the war is affecting surrogacy in Ukraine
Kersch-Kibler says the majority of her employees and surrogates are in Lviv, which is western Ukraine — which NPR calls a “safe haven” and is only about 50 miles from the border of Poland. “There are no sirens there,” she says. “All the restaurants are closed because they’re making food for refugees. But the stores are packed full.”
Kersch-Kibler shares that her team sends time-stamped videos of the stores to reassure intended parents back in the states that there is food for the surrogates.
BioTexCom, a fertility clinic based in Kyiv, Ukraine (which did not respond to Yahoo Life’s interview request), went as far as purchasing a bomb shelter — fully stocked with food, first aid kits, cribs, gas masks and more (see video below) — to protect pregnant surrogates, newborn babies, and their caretakers.
Kersch-Kibler understands that this situation is nerve-wracking for foreign intended parents with pregnant gestational surrogates in Ukraine — especially since they have often suffered pregnancy loss in the past. “They say all the time to me that I can't lose this child,” she says. “They are terrified that it’s going to happen again,” adding, “It’s very challenging.”
She tries to reassure the worried couples reaching out to her, telling them “they’re safe” and to try to “stay as calm as possible,” but admits, “I know it’s easy to say, but impossible to do. These children are the most precious things in the world to them.”
But Kersch-Kibler explains that her team has “worked out so many contingency plans” in case they need to evacuate the surrogates and has everything from satellite phones to cash “in case the banks are hit.”
What can couples with pregnant surrogates or frozen embryos do now?
For intended parents, Vaughn says, “I would say my primary advice would be to relocate a pregnant surrogate or frozen embryos out of Ukraine as quickly and safely as possible.”
Kersch-Kibler shares that her team will evacuate surrogates “if there’s any activity that comes west,” but admits that “it’s going to be challenging for those close to birth.” She adds: “We want to keep them in Ukraine as much as possible because of the legalities” there. That’s because, according to the New York Times, “if these women give birth in neighboring countries with different laws about paid surrogacy, the biological parents’ rights could be jeopardized.”
One could argue that Ukrainian surrogates are in the toughest position of all: pregnant with someone else’s child who needs to be born in Ukraine, while their lives — including their own families, homes and sense of safety — have been completely upended because of the war. Evacuation also comes with its own set of challenges, including the fact that, for some, it would mean leaving their husbands behind, since Ukraine has banned most men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country.
Everingham’s advice for intended parents is to “be patient” and “engage with your embassy” (you can find a list of foreign embassies in Ukraine here). “You can register for support with Growing Families to assist if your agency is not responding or if you are hoping to transfer embryos abroad, given we are planning shared shipments as soon as possible,” says Everingham.
He explains that Growing Families has offered shared shipments of frozen embryos since the COVID pandemic started, working with intended parents from around the world. “The rules about where they can be shipped to are complex,” Everingham explains. “Unless the embryos were originally made in the U.S., they can't go there, as they won't comply with FDA guidelines. Instead, many of these parents will be looking to ship to other countries providing surrogacy programs such as Canada, Greece and Georgia.”
In some cases, however, couples with frozen embryos in Ukraine “may very well have to start over again — if they can,” says Vaughn.
Despite the war, interest in Ukrainian gestational surrogacy hasn’t halted completely. “It’s amazing that we’re still getting inquiries and people wanting to move ahead,” shares Kersch-Kibler. “We’ve told them for the time being we really need to wait until things settle down. We just can’t predict the future or what that will be.”
Kersch-Kibler adds: “I’m hoping and praying that it’s going to settle down. Right now it’s put surrogacy on hold for the most part.”