“This Isn’t My Child – This Is My Job.” How Surrogacy Works in Ukraine
27 April, 2020
Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

Ukraine is one of the few countries in Europe where commercialized surrogacy is legal. And after both Thailand and India banned assisted pregnancy, Ukraine gained the title of the “Mecca of Surrogacy.” Prospective parents, unable to have children, began to visit Ukraine from around the world. In response to this demand, Ukraine swiftly began to create even more assisted pregnancy agencies.

But this demand has drawn the attention of unsavory characters as well - on April 25, Kyiv prosecutors announced that they had uncovered a group responsible for selling Ukrainian babies across the border under the guise of a 'surrogate maternity.' According to a law enforcement press statement, a high-ranking official at a medical clinic, specializing in surrogate maternity, took part in the scheme - and that over 140 foreigners are currently under investigation for receiving Ukrainian babies illegally.

Hromadske journalist Olesya Bida and photojournalist Anastasia Vlasova discovered the reality of biological parents, and what sacrifices surrogate mothers make when deciding to be a surrogate.

A Child Stranger

Married couple Li Wei and Dai Tsi-su, from China, traveled to Ukraine in the spring of 2019, in the hopes that they would find a surrogate mother who would carry their child.

“Choosing between the U.S. and Ukraine, we decided on Ukraine, because the quality of services is identical, but the flight costs from China and the cost of services are very different,” explained Li Wei.

Ukrainian law allows for gestational surrogacy – a woman only bears the child, and doesn’t share any genetic parentage with the child. The couple found a clinic via the Internet, came to Ukraine, and chose the most expensive package of services with “guaranteed pregnancy.” They signed a contract, and an embryo from a Ukrainian doner and Li Wei was implanted into a surrogate mother.

The Chinese couple periodically met with the woman carrying their child. Li Wei would buy presents for her and her two children. The couple even obtained an apartment in Kyiv and were preparing to do business in the city.

We planned to live in Ukraine while our girl wasn’t in school. There’s a better environment here, and we wanted her to learn the language.

The girl was born in June. She doesn’t look at all like her Chinese parents, but they don’t care about that at all. They named her Inna, and were readying themselves for a trip to China in order to introduce her to her relatives.

When a foreign child is born in Ukraine, they should receive a Ukrainian birth certificate, permission from the surrogate mother and a statement on genetic parentage from the clinic. Chinese law requires, in order to register a child that was born via surrogacy, a DNA test confirming biological parentage.

We did this, and it turned out to not be our child.

Лі Вей, Київ, 8 жовтня 2019 року

Li Wei, Kyiv, Ukraine. October 8, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

Dai Tsi-su had a nervous breakdown and flew home. Li Wei remained. 

“We analyzed all the documents and didn’t find any violations in our actions. I don’t have any questions for the doctor that handled this program. We can solve this problem by getting the DNA of the surrogate mother and all the participants,” the clinic said to Li Wei.

A DNA test established that the biological mother of the girl was the surrogate mother, and that the father shared 0% of the genetic parentage.

The surrogate mother refused to admit this and to reclaim her daughter. Li Wei was left with a child that was only his in Ukraine. Li Wei couldn’t gain parentage in China, and adopting foreign children is banned in China.

The next time Li Wei visited the clinic, he did so with Mykola Kuleba, the Plenipotentiary of the President of Ukraine for the rights of children. They called the police and wrote a statement asking them to investigate the situation.

A little later, Kuleba stated that surrogate maternity in Ukraine is “the uncontrolled sale of our children across borders,” and that it needs to be banned until it is properly regulated by law. A separate law on surrogate mothers does not exist in Ukraine. The agency and the clinic both used certain provisions of the Family Code of Ukraine, the state registration of acts of civil status in Ukraine, and a Ministry of Health order called “On the confirmation of the Order of using assisted reproductive technology in Ukraine.”

Лі Вей (в центрі) з адвокаткою та перекладачкою, Київ, 8 жовтня 2019 року

Li Wei (center) with his lawyer and translator, Kyiv, October 8, 2019. Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

She Told Her Children She’s Going to Work

Li Wei spent $200,000 on living in Ukraine and for surrogacy. The surrogate mother received less than a tenth of that sum.

Finally, the clinic told Li Wei that the surrogate mother had broken the terms of the contract, which stated that she was prohibited from having sex during the term of carrying the child.

The director of the Center for Medical and Reproductive Rights, Serhiy Antonov explained that just in the last year, there were dozens of these cases, when the DNA of the child and the biological parents did not match. And that high-quality services, according to Antonov, are provided by less than a dozen clinics. The biological parents aren’t the only ones who suffer from this, but the surrogate mothers as well.

One of them, 37-year-old Iryna (her name has been changed – ed.) from Lysychansk (a town in the Luhansk region – ed.), met us in a rented apartment in a far-away district of Kyiv. The woman is dressed in a warm robe, tied around an already large belly. She’s wearing soft slippers. Iryna escorted us into a dimly-lit room.

She moved to Kyiv in order to, for the next three months until the end of the pregnancy, live in this apartment. Her contract says that the apartment should be provided by the agency, while the biological parents are required to pay the rent.

Photo credit: Olesya Bida / hromadske

Iryna had planned to move here with her son, but instead of a bed, the apartment only had three fold out couches. The bathroom was filled with mold and fungus, and the bookshelves contained a warning from a Kyiv energy company about shutting off the power due to accumulated debt. On the table in the room where Iryna settled lie a few packs of medicines. “I would feel a lot better if I’d stayed home in warmth, comfort, and with my children. But here, even my blood pressure has begun to spike,” said the woman.

Most agencies require the surrogate mother to move to a rented apartment to live out the last few months of pregnancy. It’s convenient for the agency, since the doctor can track the progression of the pregnancy of the surrogate mother, and for the women – if they don’t want to publicize their pregnancies.

READ MORE: How Ukraine Has Become a Hot-spot for Child Surrogacy

Except for Iryna’s mother and husband, no one else knows about her pregnancy. Her 16-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son believe that their mother simply gained weight, and that she’d left home for several months in order to work. “My husband works in Melitopol (a city in southeastern Ukraine – ed.) I haven’t seen him for three months. And I told my children that I simply left for work.”

Photo credit: Olesya Bida / hromadske

Iryna is set to receive $13,500 for the birth. She needs the money for both expenses and for her daughter’s university. “Previously, I worked as a warehouse stocker at a factory. Then I left on maternity leave. And then… in 2014, all the factories began to close. And I haven’t worked for eight years.”

Iryna learned about surrogacy from an acquaintance in Lysychansk. She turned to the agency on her recommendation. Iryna has never spoken to the biological parents, a French couple – everything goes through the middlemen at the agency.

It’s good for the agency that I have no contact with the biological parents of the child. Think about their reaction, if they had seen this apartment? They definitely wouldn’t pay for this.

In the evening, as soon as it got dark, Iryna dressed up warmly and went to sleep at another woman’s house.

Working to Provide a Better Life for Their Children

Every year, the hotline for La-Strada – an international public human rights organization – receives several hundred calls from surrogate mothers. “Most of the calls are from women who are going to be entering into surrogacy programs, or are already carrying children. And a small part have already birthed a child. Considering that the government lacks a special support hotline for surrogate mothers and clinics don’t offer psychologists, 100 calls a year is a lot,” says Maryna Lehenka, the director of the department for legal and social help at La-Strada.

“Psychological help? We have a chat group in Viber (a popular chat app in Ukraine – ed.) where there are around 20 surrogate mothers who have already birthed a child or are currently carrying one. So we all talk. And we support each other,” explained 25-year-old Olha. She’s sitting in a cafe by the window, where she can easily see the train station. She’s finishing her cup of green tea while waiting for a train. One and a half years ago, Olha gave birth to twins for a Chinese couple, and prior to this, she was an egg donor. Now she’s once again pregnant for surrogacy, and has traveled to Kyiv for a check-up.

Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

“Prior to my previous births, a psychologist visited me, and asked me to draw on a piece of paper my childbirth, how I see it. I drew what I thought – at the top were the biological parents with their children, and below – me with my son and my family. After that she stopped coming to me,” said Olha. 

Olha stresses that she didn’t have any problems during her first pregnancy. She easily gave the children to their parents.

My husband came to visit me at the maternity ward, gifted me a bouquet of roses, and we went home as if nothing had happened. We returned to our previous life.

Olha and her husband fixed up their apartment with the money, and went off to vacation by the sea. Olha spoke to the biological parents of the children she’d carried for a few months following the birth. They sent her photos and videos of the children.

“Then my phone decided to stop supporting the messenger we used to talk,” explained Olha and said that she doesn’t regret that happening. She still has the children’s photos on her phone, and she smiles when she shows them. “These children are alive and well, and on February 3, they’ll already be one and a half years old. I don’t want to know anything more about them.”

Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

During our conversation, Olha sometimes repeated that regardless of what people think, she’s proud that she birthed children for a childless couple. And she insists that she had no feelings towards the children.

Why do we join this [surrogacy] program? In order to earn money for a better life for our own children. This time I’ll earn over $1,000 more and I plan to open a cafe.

She explained that work is hard to find in her town in northern Ukraine where she lives. The last time she worked was before the birth of her son, five years ago. “They say that the minimum salary in our city is 8,000 [hryvnia] ($327 – ed.). But in reality, you’re lucky if you make 3,000. ($122 – ed.) Our work is bartending, waitressing, cooking. I’m a chef by education. Until I’d gone on maternity leave, I’d worked in a bar and in a pool hall.”

Her husband travels to Moscow from time to time for work. When Olha was in the last few months of her prior pregnancy, he returned home in order to help her with life and to care for their son. “There are a lot of girls that come from the countryside. And all that they want is to put plastic windows on their house. Some people buy pigs for this money, chickens, and raise them. We’re not all from the city. My parents also live in the country, and I was born there.”

Olha finishes her tea 40 minutes before her train, takes a bag with gifts from Kyiv for her son, and heads for the station.

Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

This is All from Poverty

“It’s all a stereotype that surrogate mothers come straight from the villages, without education and career. Most of the time, women agree to be [surrogate mothers] in order to fund their lives. No one’s earning money for a fur coat or a cool car,” said Maryna (name has been changed – ed.), a 27-year-old Kyiv resident. She’s in her fifth month of pregnancy.

She’s sitting with her back to a panoramic window in a cafe. Her slightly bulging stomach is so far not noticeable under her warm sweater and coat.

My husband’s relatives had health problems, they couldn’t have children. They didn’t have the money to pay for a surrogate mother. So I agreed to carry their child for free.

While Maryna underwent a medical check-up, the childless couple managed to become pregnant with the help of in vitro fertilization. “And then when I understood that I could no longer live in an apartment with my husband’s parents, I began to look for other options in order to become a surrogate mother for money.”

Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

Maryna began to learn about the Ukrainian market for surrogate mothers, the contract provisions in agencies, and the cost of services.

My husband wasn’t against it. He didn’t want to change anything himself. He lives in an apartment, everything is okay to him. He says that 50% of people live in worse situations. But 50% of people live better!

Until her maternity leave, Maryna worked as a sales manager in a sports club and could save money. Once on leave, everything changed – her husband now had to be the sole breadwinner.

“When my son was born, I learned what it is to be broke. Regardless of how hard my husband tried, it was difficult to live on a single salary. I needed extra income, which would not take a lot of effort – except for my health.”

Maryna sent in an application to eight agencies that offer surrogacy. She started to undergo medical examinations and analyses. They found her a Ukrainian family – that was her requirement. “I immediately understood that I was pregnant, because I felt toxicosis as soon as I left the hospital and sat in a cab. If I hadn’t gotten pregnant the first time, I wouldn’t have tried again. It’s a huge stress on the body.”

Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

Two times a month, Maryna undergoes an examination in a private clinic offered by the agency. She sometimes talks to the biological parents, and she receives a monthly stipend from them. She finds support in surrogacy communities. She has an Instagram profile where she records a journal of her surrogacy. And she insists that she doesn’t need any psychological support. 

Her husband and parents know that she’s a surrogate mother. She didn’t tell her son about it. “He wouldn’t understand anyway. He’ll only be three when the child is born.”

She emphasizes that she has no feelings towards the child she’s carrying, and doesn’t see it as her own. For her, surrogacy is work with the opportunity to earn money for a separate apartment. She expects to earn $15,500 for the birth, $350 a month, and reimbursement for clothes. “This is all from poverty,” she said.

We walked with Maryna through a forest to a kindergarten where she is to pick up her son.

Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske


A few months later, Maryna wrote in her journal on Instagram about her health problems, emotional stress, her son’s sickness, and her move to her parents. “I try not to worry, but I’m very concerned about the girl. The biological parents want her so much. But it’s not all that quick… my first pregnancy was a lite version of surrogacy.”

Iryna from Lysychansk was offered a better apartment the next day. She’ll live there with her husband and son. She gave birth prematurely, and she was in labor for 30 hours. The boy was born with cerebral swelling. “From the stress, from the apartment, my pressure began to rise and my program ended in this tragedy,” she later said. The child stabilized after a month. Iryna doesn’t receive the money immediately – she’ll have to wait another month for a fifth of her earnings. She plans to once again be a surrogate mother in September.

Pre-trial investigations continue in Li Wei’s case. Inna will be adopted by a Ukrainian family. “This is a young family that very much wanted a child. She’s been living there for a week already, but her legal guardians are still waiting for a court decision,” explained Li Wei’s lawyer. 

And Olha, who had carried twins for a Chinese couple, will get back home around 8 p.m. and will tell her son that she’d been traveling for work.

Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

/By Olesya Bida

/Translated by Romeo Kokriatski