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Thursday, 07 July 2022 12:07

War babies: the business of managing human emotions

The Russian invasion has disrupted Ukraine’s $1.5 billion surrogacy industry and posed logistical and ethical challenges for agencies operating in the country. Susan Kersch-Kibler, founder of the Delivering Dreams International Surrogacy Agency, describes how she is managing to keep her operations running.

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As the founder of an international surrogacy agency, I am in the business of bringing life into the world. Since the war broke out in Ukraine in late February, I’ve been working to ensure that none of the women who work for and with me dice with death.

I set up the Delivering Dreams International Surrogacy Agency six years ago. Having worked as a real estate developer in Russia and Ukraine in my 20s, I had deep ties to the region. When my husband and I struggled with infertility, we adopted our son from an orphanage in Kharkiv. After this experience, I founded an agency helping couples grow their families through adoption and, when the rules around international adoption tightened, I moved into surrogacy.

While nothing prepares you for running a baby business in a war zone, the regional expertise and contacts I gained when developing real estate to rehouse hundreds of families after the collapse of the Soviet Union have helped me navigate the logistical hurdles of transferring women, sperm, eggs and embryos to safety.

I have also learnt to manage emotions and expectations, to turn away potential clients who may be too hard to work with, and I have certainly found that war brings out the best – and worst – in people.

As early as October and November of last year, I started receiving messages from my clients, known as the “Intended Parents” in industry jargon. They’d been watching nervously as Russia started amassing troops near the Ukrainian border and wanted to know whether we had contingency plans. In early January, we rented apartments in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine close to the Polish border. People in Ukraine laughed at us; very few were expecting Russia to take any action. Then on 15 February, nine days before the invasion, we moved our surrogates there.

Ukraine is estimated to account for around a quarter of the $6 billion global surrogacy market with some 2,000 children of foreign parents born in the country each year. Compared to the largest surrogacy agency in Ukraine, BioTexCom, which reportedly has around 600 surrogates, we offer a boutique, high-end service. We pay our surrogates $24,000 per pregnancy, a lifechanging sum of money in a country where the average annual income is around $5,000.

When Russia rolled its tanks across the border into Ukraine on 24 February, I had 13 pregnant surrogates and five employees in the country and an equal number in preparation to start.

As Russian missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities, I came under increased pressure from the intended parents to move the surrogates again, this time over the border into Poland. I was reluctant at first. Many of the surrogates, all of whom already have their own children, didn’t want to move further from their families, and the rules around surrogacy are more onerous in many of Ukraine’s neighbouring countries.

On 11 March, when Russia bombed two airfields close to the city, I was in Krakow, Poland, on my way to Ukraine. With the threat of war closing in, I decided it was too dangerous for the surrogates to stay in Lviv. I hastily arranged apartments in Krakow and asked one of the surrogacy coordinators to travel with the women to the city. But one of the surrogates, who was pregnant with twins, was deemed a high risk for premature labor. Doctors had put her on bed rest and wouldn’t let her be moved. I was faced with an impossible decision: Do I leave her alone in Lviv? Or do I ask a staff member to stay with her, potentially putting her life at risk, too? In the end, my employee Oksana Hrytsiv, a married mother of two, agreed to stay instead of fleeing with her family to the relative safety of the mountains.

I set up Delivering Dreams for two reasons: first, to give couples who have long struggled to get pregnant themselves a chance to have a biological child; secondly, to support Ukrainian women. The women that work with us want to use the money to get ahead; to buy a house or put their children through private schools. One woman used the funds to set up her own businesses.

Surrogacy is a topic that often divides people. Misunderstanding and stigma remain rife. Some people in Ukraine still believe that the woman is selling her child, while Americans have asked me whether the father has to have sexual intercourse with the surrogate. But there is no genetic connection between the surrogates and the child. The eggs of the intended mother, or a separate donor, are fertilized with the father’s sperm and the embryo is transferred into the surrogate. I’ve also heard criticism that it commoditizes the female body and goes against the wishes of God. Our response to that has been that Mary was, in fact, the first surrogate.

Ukraine is one of a handful of countries worldwide that allows for legal international surrogacy. Legally, foreign couples can conceive children in Ukraine provided they are married heterosexuals who can medically prove why they can’t have a child themselves. Parents’ names and nationalities are immediately listed on the birth certificate with no mention of the surrogate, avoiding legal complications prevalent in other countries, such as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, where the surrogate is considered the child’s mother. The parents also have custody of the child from inception, meaning that if there is an issue with the pregnancy, as long as it doesn’t threaten the life of the surrogate, they can have the final say.

Those that sign up to become a surrogate understand that it’s a job with rules and contractual conditions. Our screening is intense. Only around one in 40 applicants is successful. The women must have already given birth and fulfil a list of criteria, encompassing their physical and mental health. We also ask that their close circle of family and friends be supportive of the surrogacy. Before signing the contract, we encourage them to have independent legal counsel and get them to speak with former surrogates to make sure they truly understand the process.

While the money is undoubtedly a major draw, the surrogates are also motivated by doing something for other people. From the very beginning, they talk to the fetus about their parents; we get baby buds to put on the stomach so that parents can read stories. In a way, it’s a kind of extreme babysitting.

Following the outbreak of the war, we stopped the program altogether for just over a month because we had to focus on security and didn’t know what would happen next. We had a harrowing experience with one surrogate trapped in Sumy, a city in the northeast of Ukraine that fell under Russian occupation, and we didn’t want to be faced with having to move other surrogates through dangerous areas to get them access to quality care.

The surrogate from Sumy had endured a 36-hour journey to Lviv, including a 12-hour drive in a minibus on unpaved roads and through fields to Kyiv. Before we transferred her, we received written permission from both the parents and the surrogate herself. During the journey, we kept in touch every 20 minutes to keep track of where she was. When she eventually arrived in Lviv, she had some bleeding. We rushed her to hospital, and the ultrasound showed that she hadn’t lost the child. She is now staying in Poland with her own daughter and is around 17 weeks into her pregnancy.

"If we have a surrogate that is currently living in a dangerous area, we ask the intended parents if they would be willing to pay for her to live in accommodation elsewhere until week 25."

We also had to make evacuation plans for our clients’ biomaterials. We transferred all cryopreserved eggs and embryos to Slovakia and the sperm to Lviv. We also set up the option to give birth in Georgia and Albania. Now that Russia is focusing on the eastern front, we are in the process of resuming the embryo transfer in Kyiv.

Unlike other surrogacy agencies operating in Ukraine, which reportedly abandoned their surrogates or lost contact with them, leaving them without access to medicines, we stayed on the ground to ensure they continued to receive the very best care.

This has paid off, with couples who are looking for an agency with the highest legal and ethical standards continuing to opt for our services. We typically accompany between two and four pregnancies per month, and currently have 14 new couples matched with surrogates. In mid-May, we did our first embryo transfer since the war broke out.

Our 21 pregnant surrogates are spread out across Lviv, Krakov and Zhytomyr, a city in the middle of Ukraine around two hours west of Kyiv. Others, in the early stages of pregnancy, have decided to stay in their hometowns to be close to their extended families and protect their properties. In our contracts, the surrogates are required to move from week 26 to be close to the best medical care. If we have a surrogate that is currently living in a dangerous area, we can only work with them if the intended parents are willing to pay for her to live in accommodation elsewhere until week 26 when we start paying. This can add considerable costs to the process – the price of housing in Lviv, for example, is around $1,000 per month. But some parents are willing to pay.

“While the money is undoubtedly a major draw, the surrogates are also motivated by doing something for other people. From the very beginning, they talk to the fetus about their parents; we get baby buds to put on the stomach so that parents can read stories”

- Susan Kersch-Kibler

As an independent agency, we aren’t partnered with an individual clinic but work with several clinics which we audit yearly to assess their standards. This flexibility has paid dividends during the war. Because we aren’t tied to a bricks and mortar building, it has allowed us to move our surrogates and to hire the exact expertise we want as and when we need it.

The biggest challenge right now is still explaining the constant changes to parents. We try to think ahead, but the war is dynamic which means decisions must be constantly re-evaluated and re-assessed. Every time we want to move the surrogates and biomaterial, such as sperm and embryos, we have to get written permission from the parents. We have found that proactive communication works best. We send the parents daily logs on the situation on the ground and explain our decision making around any changes.

Our team consists of myself in New Jersey, one staff member in Krakow and four in Ukraine. To cope with the continued demand, we are looking to hire two to three people. Due to the extra costs of renting apartments in Lviv and elsewhere, we will shortly raise our prices.

Undoubtedly, the hardest part of my job over the past few months has been managing the emotions of parents. I’ve lost count of times people have asked me what’s going to happen next in the war. I’ve come to realize that all they want is for us to stop the fighting.

War brings out the best and the worst in people. It is common for pregnancy to be a time of worry for expecting parents, even more so for those who are thousands of miles away from their babies. For couples who have been through miscarriage after miscarriage, surrogacy is often a last-ditch attempt for a family. When their children are suddenly immersed in a war situation, it’s only natural that they will feel great stress.

Yet it is important to remember that the surrogates are women, who are facing their own worries; they are not just wombs for hire.

"We try to think ahead but the war is dynamic … we send the parents daily logs on the situation on the ground and explain our decision making around any changes."

At Delivering Dreams, we encourage our clients to build a relationship with the surrogates and stay in touch after the birth. Some of the intended parents have, however, let us down in recent months and caused distress to the surrogates, my staff and myself, by failing to show gratitude.

In Ukraine, it is customary to give a woman an odd number of flowers after birth. We had one set of parents who just came and took the baby and left. They didn’t even write to the surrogate to say thank you. Another couple failed to respect the wishes of the surrogate. She had to undergo an emergency procedure and requested that the parents remain outside the operating theater. Instead, the parents barged into the room and had to be escorted out by the medical team.

Another set of parents ignored our advice to stay in Poland until shortly before the birth and arrived in Ukraine two weeks early. Unnerved by the constant sound of air raid sirens, they started pressuring the surrogate to give birth early, even though this went against medical advice.

In the other extreme, another couple who had long promised the surrogate they would be by her side for the birth sent a message three days beforehand informing her they were going to stay in Poland and asking for the baby to be brought to the border.

This may be a business and you are supposed to be objective, but you can’t help but let these things affect you. As a result we have established a new list of guidelines for intended parents, which includes not making promises in case they cannot keep them. If we think clients are going to be particularly hard to work with, we recommend that they hire someone else.

The war has also exposed the hidden courage in so many people. One of my staff members, who came across as shy and retiring before the war, displayed a real heroic streak. Fearing that the conflict might lead to a collapse in the banking system, we had stashed cash at various places across Kyiv. When the war broke out, this staff member had risked her life to go and collect this money and important documents before hitch-hiking for three days across the country to Lviv. When she arrived, exhausted, she told us, “I never knew I had this in me.”

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Testimonials

We have been very satisfied, I have been comfortable at the clinic and with my doctor. I was heard. I could ask any questions. I like you have hu-mor, despite the circumstances. Great clinic. Your service has been very good. You have been a huge support and very spacious. You have been available 24 hours a day. You have the answer to all the questions we have been asked. You have accommodated our nervousness, you have rejoiced with us, you have been there throughout. I could not have wished ...
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A and S
The communication with surrogate is easy and better than what we expected. The updates are provided as scheduled with occasional surprises
S
The support was great. It was easy on us that the coordination was done by the delivering dreams team while being completely transparent with us on the progress. The communication with the delivering dreams team was always fast, responsive, and easy.
E and K
Thank you kate. You have been great today and all the other days ❤ you are a great team. We are very satisfied and happy for your help.
Sonny
We were confident before in our choice, but this experience has confirmed beyond any doubt that we choose the best agency.
Doyles
I loved working with Susan and her team and highly recommend them to anyone considering her services. She's is great at every aspect of a process and knows how to handle delicate matters.
Diana Lyakhovetska
Susan truly understands the needs of parents using surrogacy, and offers comprehensive emotional support to parents as they experience the journey!
Christine Hughes Pontier
The team at Delivering Dreams is amazing! Their attention to detail and ability to put your mind at ease while growing your family is like none other. They handled everything for us, and I never once doubted they would help us accomplish our dreams.
Margaret Jones
I’ve known Susan for several years now, and I’ve always been impressed by her attention to her clients’ needs. I’ve known her to work ardently and diligently to solve whatever challenges, no matter how unique, that prevent her clients from completing their families. She is a problem-solver, and she earnestly believes in providing the best options and in making surrogacy opportunities realities: this is not merely a business for Susan. She will help customize the process for your needs and to ...
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Mary Woods
Susan has a keen sense of business and goes to the max to solve her clients’ problems. She is super knowledgeable on business, laws and how things work in surrogacy in general, and specifically on Ukrainian surrogacy. She is an advocate for transparency in a market that’s often opaque and full of hidden risks. I really enjoyed working with Susan. She really pays attention to detail and was always looking out for my best interest above all. Highly recommend!
Laurie Tham
Delivering Dreams goes above and beyond what other surrogacy agencies offer. After speaking with Susan, I see how they anticipate every part of the process, down to details that I had never even considered. I didn’t know what I didn’t know! Surrogacy can be really complicated and confusing. What an amazing sense of relief to have a company so dedicated to managing the WHOLE process and taking away as much of the stress as possible.
Kate Varness
I have gotten to know Susan through a group where we are members. I have found her to be a genuine and caring person. Her consideration for others and love of her work with Ukrainian surrogates and parents-to-be are evident in all her decision making. She is passionate about being a force for the greater good and helping where she can. I have been amazed at the way she is able to smoothly navigate the complicated maze of requirements in the surrogacy process. I am happy to give her my highest...
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Rose Anne Barbour Huck
Susan Kibler is kind.  She clearly loves those she works with and loves what she does.  Susan listens deeply and compassionately and can make you laugh all in the space of one conversation.  She is wonderful!  If you are feeling worried, she'll hear you.  If you have questions, she will find answers for you. If you need help, she does her very best to support you.  I feel so fortunate to have found her and imagine you will too.
Frances Russell
Susan has the ability to really connect on a personal level quickly.  I have found her easy to talk to and have been so grateful for her guidance.  She is one of those people who offers so much to her clients.  She sees the big picture and has a heart for the most intimate concerns.  She is highly skilled and able to manage what can certainly be challenging and uncomfortable experiences, making them feel easier.  She will take charge at the perfect times and guide you when you really need her...
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Susan Seare
The international surrogacy world is complicated. Susan Kibler knows its ins-and-outs. She knows the people and outfits you can trust and the ones to avoid. She insists on the best for her clients and handles the details so they don't have to worry about them. If you want to take the international surrogacy journey, you can trust Delivering Dreams International Surrogacy Agency to guide you on that path.
Nancy Linnerooth
My friend and I had a positive experience working with Susan. Susan is always super responsive and caring. She is very professional, helpful and reliable. My friend has soo much troubles trying having a baby for many years. My friend and her husband were about to give up their dream of having a baby. Susan Kersch Kibler found the way to help. She has unlimited energy, attentive to detail and super efficient. Great to work with!
Polina Clend
Susan is passionate about helping people become families. She is a trustworthy confidant to have on your side.
Kristen Ancker
Our experience with Delivering Dreams has been overwhelmingly positive. The team seems to be genuinely dedicated to helping us to realize our dream of having a child. The constant communication leading up to the trip and the numerous touch points made us feel comforted in what has been a very challenging and uncomfortable situation. We always had streamlined communication through the group chat and was frequently checked on during our stay.
Marilyn

Under Ukrainian law, surrogacy is a legal affordable option for traditionally married couples to have children using their own embryos, or with either an egg or sperm donor. There must be a medical reason you can’t carry a child. You are also able to participate if you have had 4 unsuccessful IVF attempts.

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Under Ukrainian law, surrogacy is a legal affordable option for traditionally married couples to have children using their own embryos, or with either an egg or sperm donor. There must be a medical reason you can’t carry a child. You are also able to participate if you have had 4 unsuccessful IVF attempts.