The Russian invasion of Ukraine has thrown the lives of Melbourne couple Jessica Van Nooten and her husband Kevin, into turmoil and chaos. The events which are occurring half a world away in eastern Europe have caused untold distress for the couple, who planned to travel to Ukraine and pick up their baby daughter Alba, born ten weeks early to a surrogate in February this year.
Baby Alba's early arrival caused the couple to pack their bags and travel to Ukraine much earlier than expected. Their flight to Ukraine was diverted when Russian troops invaded that same week. Instead of holding their newborn baby in their arms, they are stranded in nearby Poland, waiting for the borders to open, and being forced to rely upon periodic updates they receive from the surrogacy agency about how their premature newborn is faring.
“They said our baby is very premature and she’s in hospital.
“Her lungs aren’t developed … there was a bit of bleed on her brain, and they also said something about the intestines not being developed.
“But all of this is in line with a premature baby, and they assure us she’s getting the best possible care.”
Ms Van Nooten said the surrogate mother was also in hospital receiving care.
Jessica and Kevin’s story is tragic; to be separated from your baby and unable to be with her at such a fragile stage in her young life would create untold anxiety and distress.
However, the story serves to highlight the inherent difficulties with the surrogacy industry itself, which exploits women, puts babies born to surrogates at risk of abandonment and neglect, and commodifies and commercialises the process of pregnancy and childbirth.
The outbreak of war in the country has brought into sharp focus the competing interests at the heart of every surrogacy arrangement; those between the health and welfare of surrogates and their babies, and the rights of commissioning parents. The ethical issues surrounding the practice of surrogacy are compounded further by the outbreak of war in the country, prompting urgent questions about whose interests should be given priority? Should the commissioning parents get to require surrogates to move to safety, even if it means moving them away from their own families and children?
A recent article published in the Atlantic (“Ukraine’s Surrogacy Industry Has Put Women in Impossible Situations”) acknowledges the tensions that exist 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 travelling more than 100 miles from home.”
With the outbreak of war, how are these contractual obligations to be fulfilled? Is a contract still binding when it requires a surrogate not to travel more than 100 miles from home? What if the surrogate doesn’t want to leave her family when war is imminent? What if she’s forced to? What if she can’t return to her family after being forced to move to somewhere safe?
The reality is that participation in the surrogacy industry creates demand for a business model that puts women and children at risk. The high profile story of Baby Gammy a few years ago, who was left behind in Thailand by his commissioning parents, is but one example of the risk of abandonment faced by children born to surrogates, whether due to disability, complications, or simply commissioning parents' change of heart. ABC correspondent Samantha Hawley’s expose of children born to surrogates and left behind by foreigners in Ukraine details the risks to children from this industry that commodifies children and treats them as a product to be bought and paid for.
The exploitation of surrogates themselves is well documented; and with the closure of the industry in Thailand, India and Nepal, Ukraine surrogacy companies now make up a quarter of the global surrogacy market. The stories told by women who have worked in the industry paint a very sobering picture of the reality of life as a surrogate.
One such story is that told by Ukrainian surrogate, Alina, who was a surrogate for a 38 year old woman from Romania. Alina agreed to become a surrogate because her work as a hairdresser was not garnering enough income for her to provide for her family.
“It’s hard to find a well-paid job in Ukraine” she said, “I wanted to renovate the house and set aside money for my son’s university fees – they’re very expensive. My mother never had the means to support me in that way, but I want my son to get an education.”
However, Alina goes on to describe the working conditions for herself and other surrogates:
She said BioTexCom [the largest surrogacy company in the Ukraine] put her up in a small apartment 32 weeks into her pregnancy with four other women, where she was forced to share a bed with another surrogate mother.
“We were all very stressed. Most of the women come from small villages and are in hopeless situations,” she said. “We spent the first week just lying around, crying. We couldn’t eat. This is a typical situation for surrogates.”
“If we weren’t home after 4pm, we could be fined 100 euros. We were also threatened with a fine if any of us openly criticised the company, or directly communicated with the biological parents.”
According to Alina and BioTexCom clients, surrogates were sent to give birth in a state hospital in Kiev where the level of care is reported to be poor.
“We were treated like cattle and mocked by the doctors,” Alina said. “There was no hot water, we washed with plastic bottles over the toilet with water that was preheated in a kettle. I wanted to be transferred to a different hospital, but the staff threatened not to pay me at all if I complained to Anca.”
The surrogacy market brings in over $1.5 billion USD to Ukraine annually, with lawmakers reporting resistance to regulation of the industry because of the significant boost it provides to the economy. Financial incentive is also what draws vulnerable women into the industry:
“While proponents claim that women freely choose to become surrogates, vulnerable women are often manipulated through the presentation of choice. Potential surrogates are forced to choose between providing for their families through a practice that may violate their moral beliefs or forfeiting a financial opportunity to provide for their families.
“In most surrogacy contracts, women give up all rights related to controlling their pregnancies. While there is no large scale data, surrogates report undergoing forced abortions of fetuses unwanted by clients, significant underpayment, unsafe and oppressive living environments, provided by surrogacy agencies, poor health care for both birth and pregnancy-related complications, and long term physical damage due to the surrogacy process.”
The war in Ukraine has brought the tensions inherent in this exploitative business model into sharp focus – there can be no winners as the rights of commissioning parents and their concerns for their babies compete with the rights of surrogates to be safe in a country experiencing war and the need to make decisions that are in the best interests of their own children and families. The only winners seem to be those making a profit from this exploitative industry.