Nothing crystallizes the “her body, my baby” conundrum of surrogacy quite like a war. Should a surrogate be tucked away somewhere safe, to protect the child she’s growing for someone else? Or should she be with her own family, or in her hometown, or even out on the streets defending her nation?
That is a live question in Ukraine right now.
Ukraine is an international surrogacy hub, one of only a handful of countries in the world that allows foreigners to enter into surrogacy arrangements. That means people from the United States or China or Germany or Australia can go there and hire a local woman to gestate their child. There are conditions—the parents have to be straight and married and have a medical reason for needing a surrogate—but surrogates are plentiful, paying them is legal, and establishing legal parenthood for the intended parents is uncomplicated.
How many babies are born in Ukraine through surrogacy is not known—perhaps 2,500 a year. BioTexCom, one large fertility clinic based in Kyiv, confirmed to me that it is expecting some 200 surrogate babies to be born in the next three months.
There can be tensions in these relationships. The woman carrying the baby deserves bodily autonomy, the parents deserve security for their child, and occasionally the two are at odds, even under the best conditions. Parents may want a surrogate to abstain from certain foods, such as coffee, or certain activities, such as kickboxing. I’ve seen contracts with North American surrogates saying no to hair dye, perfume, dentistry, and even sex. Other times parents try to restrict a woman’s movements: no moving out of state, for instance, or no traveling more than 100 miles from home.
Ukrainian surrogates face similar restrictions. Even before war threatened, many of them were contractually obliged to move closer to their clinic and birthing hospital a few months in advance of their due date. Surrogates I spoke with by Zoom two and a half weeks ago, all working with the New Jersey–based surrogacy agency Delivering Dreams, seemed fine with that requirement. They each had their own apartment, and some brought their families with them.
At the time, the women I spoke with were not worried about what they saw as an unlikely war. One surrogate called the idea “total nonsense.” But the intended parents whose babies they were carrying, who live in the U.S. and Canada, were nervous. They were hearing that Ukraine might be invaded, and they wanted the surrogates—and the babies in their wombs—to be safe.
Back in late January, Susan Kersch-Kibler, Delivering Dreams’ founder, held a Zoom meeting with parents to talk about contingency plans. I listened in, intrigued. Kersch-Kibler herself did not expect anything more serious than cyberattacks from Russia, she said at the time, but nonetheless she was preparing for the worst. She told clients who were scheduled to bring home their babies from Ukraine in the coming weeks to pack lots of cash, in case banks went down, and warm clothes, in case electricity cut out.
She also advised them to buy very flexible airline tickets. Exactly where their babies might end up being born wasn’t clear, she told them. She would move surrogates west to Lviv if there were significant military actions in eastern Ukraine. In the event of a full-scale military invasion, though, she was prepared to move them out of the country altogether. The women’s passports were in order, she told the parents.
When, in mid-February, government advisories took on a more urgent tone, exhorting foreign nationals to “avoid all travel to Ukraine” and “leave while commercial means are available,” and when even embassies started to decamp from the capital, Kersch-Kibler decided to start moving her surrogates west to Lviv.
“We cannot have the surrogate in any danger,” Kersch-Kibler told me at the time. “And whether they consider it danger or not, if the parents consider it danger, they’re going to be stressed out of their minds. And I don’t want that to spill over to the surrogate.”
I could sense that familiar tension: the parents’ need to feel secure versus the surrogate’s need to make decisions about her own life.
The women I communicated with were not happy to go. Mostly, they thought it was unnecessary. They did not want to uproot their families yet again, and most decided not to—they went alone. But a few days after the move, two of the women told me via WhatsApp that they missed their kids. “I hope we go back to Kyiv as soon as possible,” one said.
We all know what happened next.
In the days following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, fertility clinics in Kyiv, now under serious assault, shut down. People took shelter or fled.
BioTexCom had told me earlier that it had secured a bomb shelter nearby to protect parents, surrogates, and newborns. A YouTube video it shared showed that the shelter was kitted out with beds, cribs, sleeping bags—and gas masks. There was a stockpile of food and medical supplies, and the facility had running water, washrooms, and cooking facilities. I emailed to see if anyone had actually used it during the first or second night of fighting in Kyiv, but I did not hear back.
Meanwhile Kersch-Kibler was frantically trying to move more surrogates to safety. The heavily pregnant women were already in Lviv, but now she began urging the newly pregnant, and even some women who’d recently started taking hormones to prepare their uterine linings for embryo transfers, to travel west as well.
But some of the surrogates did not want to move—or in some cases, to remain in safe locations but separated from family. They wanted to make their own decisions, about where and how they might survive the next days and months.
Many people have jobs that force them to be separated from their families—military personnel, diplomats, foreign correspondents, international nannies, home care workers. And in Ukraine, being a surrogate is not only a job; it is often a well-paid job. But most jobs you can quit, or at least put on hold. This one you can’t, really. This one might keep you from your family or from acting on your sense of duty to your country. It might physically impede your ability to get to safety. It might require you to seek medical attention even as medics are overrun with the injured and dying.
Some people in wartime can turn all of their attention to family and the war effort, but surrogates cannot. Even if they defy pleas to go to places of safety, they carry their work with them, inside their body.
Should a surrogate in Ukraine stay safe for the baby? Or do what’s right for her own family? Should she seek refuge in a third country, such as Poland or Moldova or Hungary, where parentage laws consign the intended parents to legal complications, or should she press on to a country such as the Czech Republic, where laws for parents are better?
The reality is that the interests of the surrogate and the interests of the parents don't always align. War just makes it that much more stark.