A post on Emilie’s Instagram feed records her first outing as a new mum. It is dark out, but she is grinning, pushing a buggy and wearing a sweater emblazoned with the word “MOM”. Behind her, Kyiv’s St Sophia Cathedral glows blue and gold, lit up in the colours of the Ukrainian flag.
Days earlier, Galina*, a local woman, had given birth to Emilie’s daughter, Sigrid. Over the previous nine months, the two women had messaged frequently: Emilie from London, Galina from her home in the south of Ukraine. Then, in the hours after the birth, Emilie had taken Sigrid and crept down the hospital hallway into Galina’s room, even though it was lockdown and they were supposed to stay separate. Over the following days, the two women built a close bond, visiting one another’s hospital rooms, using Google Translate to communicate and feasting on the coffee and sushi delivered by Emilie’s husband, Nick.
In the two years since Sigrid’s birth, the two families have remained close. Emilie shares pictures of Sigrid, and Galina, who has children of her own, sends parenting advice. “Even now, Sigrid has had head lice, and I got them too. She was giving me tips: ‘You’ve got to use the stuff that I give my animals.’ I was like, I don’t have any animals!”
On 24 February, Emilie watched helplessly as Russian troops marched into Ukraine. “I went into ‘I have to do something’ mode,” she says. She tried sending money – “In Kyiv, a nice lunch for two without alcohol would be €10. By day three [of the invasion], a bag of flour cost €10,” says Emilie. After a number of attempts, she succeeded. “[Galina] has never asked for anything. She’s never asked for money. But [on this occasion] she didn’t say no.”
Emilie says she felt powerless to help the person who has given her everything. She bombarded Galina with offers: “I’ve asked her if she wants to leave, and said that we would help if she wanted us to. But she was like, ‘We have nowhere to go.’”
Emilie is one of a group of parents whose children were born via Ukrainian surrogate who are desperately trying to help the people who gave them their children. Facebook groups, says Emilie, have been bombarded with requests for advice on getting families out of Ukraine, or getting money into the country. Some have driven across Europe to pick up surrogates and their families, while others have offered help to find or pay for accommodation in neighbouring countries, so they can stay close to home. These women helped fulfil their dreams, they say – they will do whatever they can to aid them now.
Ukraine is a popular destination for British people wishing to do surrogacy – partly because it’s cheap (packages start at about £40,000, compared with around £100,000 in the US), partly because it’s relatively nearby and partly because its legislation is favourable, with comparatively few bureaucratic obstacles for so-called intended parents (IPs). It’s a booming industry: every year, around 2,000 children are born to foreigners via surrogacy in the country.
When the war hit, dozens of British families were awaiting the birth of their babies: Natalie Gamble, a solicitor at NGA Law who specialises in fertility law, including surrogacy, was working with 32 families who were expecting in the country. Most, she says, did everything possible to ensure their surrogates and their families were safe, including offering accommodation in the UK. When it turned out there was no route to the UK for surrogates, they lobbied the government – and their efforts were rewarded when Priti Patel announced that the women and their families would be welcome to stay in the UK for three years. “We’ve had five visas granted now for pregnant surrogates to come and stay with their intended parents here in the UK,” says Gamble.
But many of the women affected preferred to stay where they were – in familiar surroundings and close to family and friends. Stephanie*, whose son is due via a Ukrainian surrogate in early May, says she has tried everything to ensure the woman carrying her child and her family are safe. “We’ve said we’ll go into Ukraine, pick up her, her mother and her kids, get them to the border and fly them over. We’ve offered to rent them a flat in London, or stay with us – whatever they would prefer. We’ve also said if you want to go to Romania or Poland, we’ll find you somewhere and we’ll support you,” she says.
Her surrogate’s choice complicates things for Stephanie, who has been learning Ukrainian so she is able to communicate with her. “We will have to cross the border by foot, carrying our one suitcase and all our cash to pay [the surrogate] because you can’t get foreign currency into Ukraine at the moment.” But she says she respects it. “It’s a joint decision as far as we’re concerned. She feels comfortable there: she’ll give birth in the hospital where she gave birth to the kids she already has. She knows the doctors, she knows the facilities.”
This is not uncommon, says Gamble: “Some surrogates are asking their intended parents to help them get to the UK, while others are saying, ‘Actually, I feel safe where I am; I don’t want to leave because I don’t want to be away from my partner, wider family or whoever. I’ll give birth in this place and make sure it’s safe, but I’m not leaving Ukraine.’”
“The parents are working with their surrogates,” she says. “They’re not insisting they do this or do that… it’s much more ‘We respect what our surrogate wants to do, and we want to help her’.”
But not everyone recognises that. Reports in the press have accused parents of abandoning their babies when the going got tough, and have spread fears they will force surrogates to leave Ukraine. A video which went viral on social media showed 21 babies being cared for by nurses in a bunker. “So far only two couples… have made the journey to collect their children,” the accompanying report read.
“It makes me so angry,” adds Emilie, whose only remaining embryo – and her last chance of having another child – is currently frozen in a bunker in Kyiv, overseen by a clinic which is rapidly running out of the liquid nitrogen it needs to sustain it. “I think that people think we just go and buy babies. But there’s always a back-story. Nobody chooses to do this.”
Stephanie, who needed a surrogate after years of infertility (caused when an operation following a miscarriage left her uterus so badly scarred she was unable to carry a baby to term), says she feels let down by the reports – and the online comments that accompany them. “I find it interesting how few people who are critical of it as a practice actually understand it,” she says. “Our surrogate has told us she is happy to be helping us create a family… She really sees this greater purpose in what she’s doing. And I think people forget that.”
For everyone involved, the main priority is ensuring their babies, and the women who gave birth to them, are safe and healthy. “She’s literally given us the greatest gift,” says Emilie. “Nobody can trump that. I feel in debt to her, and in debt to the country.”
* Names have been changed