Over the last few years, Ukraine has become a hotspot for international child surrogacy agreements. While the business is flourishing, the lack of proper regulation has led to situations of deep psychological distress for committing parents, surrogate mothers, and children as well. As the risks of international child surrogacy become more and more obvious, Europe is called on taking a stance.
A hard wake-up call
Over the last few weeks, a series of dreadful news abruptly reminded Europe of the existence of a sinister black market within its borders: the trade in new-born babies and surrogate mothers. On September the 27th, Greek authorities delivered the country a shocking announcement: as a result of a long-running investigation, 12 people were arrested under the accusation of running a €500,000 baby-smuggling network. The network recruited vulnerable women from Bulgaria and transported them to Thessaloniki in order to trade their babies, their ova, or to use them as surrogates. The gang, which included an obstetrician-gynecologist and employees of private fertility reproduction clinics, would even subject the women to a series of fertility treatments to maximise the number of their ova. More recently, on October the 6th, the story of a mafia boss who illegally recruited an Eastern European woman to bear a child, whom he later gave as a gift to a fellow mobster, made headlines in Italy. Sad to remind it, this is not the first time we hear about abuses and exploitation in the international market for child surrogacy. In both cases mentioned above, the abuses took place in countries where surrogacy is illegal and were part of a black market. Yet, even in countries were the practice is fully legalised, scandals and abuses are not uncommon. Accordingly, as the international demand for surrogacy services began shifting to Eastern Europe, the issue gained increasing relevance in the region, in particular in Ukraine.
In most countries in the world, surrogacy is highly regulated, forbidden or simply too expensive for most people to make use of it. This is the case of the US, where the costs range between 85.000 and 140.000 dollars. For these reasons, many couples seek for cheaper options abroad. According to some observers, the practice of hiring women from developing countries as surrogate mothers has become so common among Westerners that it could be said the West is no longer just outsourcing industrial production to low-income countries, but even reproduction. Until 2015, the bulk of aspiring parents seeking for low cost surrogacy services would look at Nepal, India, and Thailand. Yet, beginning 2015, these countries gave themselves stricter rules and banned all surrogacy agreements with foreigners. Such decisions came after a series of high profile scandals which culminated in the case of Gammy, a little Thai boy born with Down’s syndrome which was abandoned by his Australian parents. Sadly enough, this was only the tip of the iceberg as the risk for trafficking, abandonment and statelessness had already proven significant.
The turn on Ukraine
As these countries closed their doors to foreign couples, countries such as Russia, Georgia and Ukraine became the new hotspots for cheap surrogacy services. The business grew particularly lucrative in Ukraine, where the practice is legal but basically unregulated. The lack of appropriate regulation resulted in an insufficient protection of the rights of intended parents, surrogate mothers and children as well. Pursuant to Ukrainian law, any connection between the surrogate mother and the child is severed. Indeed, a surrogate mother does not have the right to reconsider and decide to keep the child. Moreover, the country’s policy on birth certificates only allows for the certificate to be issued in the name of the commissioning parents, which means surrogate children do not qualify automatically as citizens of their country of birth. Meanwhile, surrogate mothers are faced with deep psychological distress. Not only the agreement they sign covers every aspect of their personal lives, such as the possibility to engage in sexual intercourse: while carrying the baby, mothers also face condemnation by most people around them, from their neighbours to the church. Because of the strong social pressures, many of them are embarrassed with their pregnancy and even try to hide it. For tough they might appear, these routine hardships were soon discovered to be only the thin end of the wedge. Accordingly, and sadly enough, soon after the demand for cheap surrogacy shifted on Ukraine, the very same abuses which occurred elsewhere emerged in the country. In the words of investigative journalist Samantha Hawley “while the country has changed, the story remains the same.”
New country, same old story
Since Ukraine became a hot destination for surrogacy tourism, all the potential risks which led other countries to forbid international agreements surfaced again. In 2018, the case of 30 families unable to take their children back home made headlines in Spain. Because paying a surrogate to carry a child is an illegal practice in their home country, the couples were not able to obtain Spanish passports for their babies. While the consulate reassured the families that they would work on overcoming the situation on a case by case basis, they warned against entering any further surrogacy agreement in Ukraine, reminding Spaniards of the shady practices in surrogacy clinics in the country. The embassy lamented a general lack of medical attention during the pregnancy, and in some cases deliberate manipulations of the process. According to the embassy, some physicians would induce abortions six weeks into the pregnancy so couples are forced to embark on another costly IVF treatment. But the market is not only potentially dangerous for would-be-parents: surrogate mothers and children are subject to abuses of any sort as well. According to a recent investigation, at least 10 new-borns were surrendered to adoption agencies by their intended parents. In worse cases, children ended up being smuggled out of the country. Most lately, news of the abandonment of a severely diseased baby sparked international outcry. The baby, a little girl called Bridget, was born prematurely at 25 weeks with a wide range of disabilities. When they learned of her condition, the commissioning parents fled the country leaving Bridget behind. Sadly enough, this was only the first of many hardships Bridget and her caregivers had to endure. Five months after the baby’s birth, the couple abruptly addressed her caregivers through a legal letter asking life support to be switched off because the little girl had “no chances of becoming a normal person”. Yet, Bridget survived her hardest days and 18 months later the Americans finally handled their consent for adoption. However, the document was not recognised by Ukrainian law, which meant Bridget was at risk of statelessness. Nowadays, the child is on her way to be legally recognised as a Ukrainian citizen, which means she will soon be able to be adopted. Until that happens, she will remain at Sonechko Children’s Home, under the cure of Marina Boyko, the paediatric nurse who followed her since her birth.
As of today, the practice of child surrogacy still raises numerous ethical dilemmas and the debate whether or not to legalise it is still open and heated in numerous countries. While this discussion takes place, it should be acknowledged that in the case of international agreements the fear for commodification of human life has proven very well-funded. Over the years, way too many scandals have emerged to prove this point. And yet, Western audiences do not seem to acknowledge it. When Pacific countries delegalised international surrogacy agreements, some pundits lamented that intended parents were “left with few low-cost options”. A New York Times piece reported that “these nations have shut their doors amid concerns over exploitation of the surrogates, oversight and safety, leaving people of less means without many choices”. What one is left to wonder is why we are expecting women from developing countries to offer services which would be unacceptable or even illegal in our own countries. If we really believe there is some kind of right to low-cost surrogacy, why are we expecting it to be fulfilled abroad? As the market began flourishing in neighbouring Ukraine, Europe is called on taking a stance on the issue. The work of the Spanish embassy to raise awareness on the shadiness of these practices, while unpopular, should be taken as an example. It’s time for developed countries to wake up and smell the roses: we bear our share of responsibility for the sad stories told above, the earlier we acknowledge it, the earlier they will stop happening.