MOSCOW—The babies are adorable, all pink and polished in white t-shirts with their names emblazoned on them, but more than 50 infants arrayed in row upon row of cribs in a Kyiv hotel are at the center of a huge scandal in Ukraine.
They were born to surrogate mothers, and the parents who arranged for their births cannot get to them because of the global COVID-19 lockdown, according to a video originally posted in late April by a Kyiv-based company called BioTexCom. It has made a business—what looks almost like an industry—out of surrogacy. Unsurprisingly, Ukrainian bloggers have mocked it as “a baby factory,” and called the hotel a warehouse for “the goods.”
The situation is a source of enormous frustration and pain for parents scattered around the world. Couples from the United States, Mexico, Great Britain, China and many other countries are trying to get to Ukraine to see their newly born children, only to face the trauma of cancelled flights or refused visa requests.
BioTexCom, based in Kyiv, is one of several clinics providing hundreds of Ukrainian surrogate mothers for foreign parents for $20,000-$30,000, which is a fraction of the cost American parents might pay for surrogacy at home, and which bypasses laws in many countries that make surrogacy illegal.
In the video BioTexCom's lawyer assures parents and the public around the world that the company’s babysitters take good care of the babies 24/7: “Every day they spend some time with the children in the open air and bathe them.” One of the BioTexCom babysitters adds cheerily, “We have 46 babies in our hotel. It is difficult for us but we handle it well.” And there are more on the way, we’re told.
In the slickly produced video, the babysitters are feeding some babies, while others are screaming, of course, and despite the pastel palette, it could be a typical scene from a Soviet or post-Soviet era Labor Home. Typically those had wards for 30 to 40 mothers and baby rooms where mothers could not go and where dozens of infants were kept for the first three to six days of their lives.
Ukraine’s Ombudswoman for Human Rights, Lyudmila Denisova, said at a news briefing on Thursday, that as many as 51 babies are now staying without their parents at the Venice Hotel in Kyiv, all of them born at BioTexCom.
“Talking with this clinic I found out that there are 100 babies waiting for their parents in various centers of reproductive medicine,” Denisova said. ”They say that by the end of the quarantine we won’t have hundreds but thousands of such babies.”
To solve the issue for the parents of the Venice Hotel babies and the hundreds more due to be born in Ukraine in coming months, Denisova said she has reached out to Ukraine’s National Police, the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Social Policy. The necessary arrangements are being done to protect the babies’ rights, she said, but the parents’ rights are not so clear.
For years, Ukraine has been known as Europe’s surrogacy capital. For thousands of young Ukrainian women who may be living on $200 to $300 a month, carrying someone else’s baby for nine months seems a good way to earn from $13,000 to $20,000.
But even before the pandemic, some foreign parents were left in limbo, complaining about corruption, issues with citizenship, and poor management.
“Surrogacy is not illegal in Ukraine but it is not guided by any law or state regulation either, which is a problem,” says Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center. “Many poor young women who try to get paid for bearing a baby are treated terribly, and may undergo labor in the worst conditions.”
The BioTexCom video is explicitly intended to pressure the Ukrainian government and the governments of the parents’ country to reach an agreement allowing them to pick up their babies. But the publicity may have backfired.
“We see many people calling to ban commercial surrogacy and international adoption altogether,” Katerina Sergatskova, the founder of Zaborona media project told The Daily Beast. “That would be a sad solution for thousands of children.”
Their future would almost certainly be bleak. According to the latest report by UNICEF, the pandemic may push an additional 6.3 million Ukrainians below the poverty line, including 1.4 million children. An example of what happens when foreign adoptions are banned has been given by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who barred them in 2012 to retaliate against the United States for legislation he didn’t like. Today, more than 40,000 Russian children live in orphanages.
It appears a few parents have managed to get through all the obstacles erected by Europe and Ukraine during the pandemic. In a video posted by BioTexCom on May 6, a couple identified as Maria and Andreas describe their ordeal of getting all the necessary documents under “horrific circumstances.”
After the news about their situation was aired on Swedish television, they say, an “enormous sponsor” called offering to help pay for a private jet so they could make it to Kyiv before their twin babies were born. As of last week they were still in quarantine in a Kyiv hotel, feeling totally exhausted by the stress: “We’ve been so tired, it’s been such a hard fight to find a way to get here, with a lot of anxiety, search for information, contacts, our brains are really tired,” said Maria. “Hopefully we will get through this quarantine before the babies are born.”