MOSCOW — The babies lie in cribs, sleeping, crying or smiling at nurses, swaddled in clean linens and apparently well cared for, but separated from their parents as an unintended consequence of coronavirus travel bans.
Dozens of babies born into Ukraine’s booming surrogate motherhood business have become marooned in the country as their biological parents in the United States and other countries cannot travel to retrieve them after birth. For now, the agencies that arranged the surrogate births care for the babies.
Authorities say that at least 100 babies are stranded already and that as many as 1,000 may be born before Ukraine’s travel ban for foreigners is lifted.
“We will do all we can to unite the children with their parents,” Albert Tochilovsky, director of BioTexCom, the largest provider of surrogacy services in Ukraine, said in a telephone interview. He said he released a video showing dozens of stranded babies in cribs to call attention to the problem.
“I’m in a difficult situation,” he said. “Hundreds of parents are calling me. I’m exhausted.”
Ukraine does not tally statistics on surrogacy, but it may lead the world in the number of surrogate births for foreign biological parents, Tochilovsky said. His company alone is awaiting about 500 births. Fourteen companies offer the service in Ukraine.
Ukraine is an outlier among nations, although not alone, in allowing foreigners to tap a broad range of reproductive health services, including buying eggs and arranging for surrogate mothers to bear children for a fee. The business has thrived largely because of poverty.
“The cheapest surrogacy in Europe is in Ukraine, the poorest country in Europe,” BioTexCom’s website explains. Surrogate mothers in Ukraine typically earn about $15,000.
Some members of Parliament who have long opposed the business have renewed their calls for banning surrogacy services for foreigners now that the babies are stacking up without parents.
Surrogacy is available in Ukraine only if a woman in a heterosexual partnership can demonstrate that she cannot bear children herself.
The business has depended on the careful choreography of births and travel, disrupted now by the virus. For a time at least, the babies in their cribs are citizens of no country.
Under Ukrainian law, the newborns share the citizenship of their biological parents, but the parents must be present for foreign embassies to confirm that status.
BioTexCom says it does not recruit surrogates in the war zone in eastern Ukraine where the clients’ babies might be harmed or killed together with the mother, for example by mines or stray artillery shelling.
To curb the spread of the coronavirus, Ukraine has banned entry for all foreigners, with exceptions granted only if an embassy intervenes to arrange travel.
Tochilovsky said doctors and caregivers now live at a company-owned hotel in Kyiv together with the babies, feeding them formula, taking them for walks and showing them to parents in video calls, all while in quarantine to protect against infection.
As of Saturday, 60 babies were at the hotel. The parents of 16 of them were also present, having arrived before the lockdowns or having found a way in afterward.
At BioTexCom, the company offers parents a 50% discount on the usual $54 daily fee per baby for care until travel becomes possible.
“We know a lot of you are sitting at home with the same anxiety and worries that we had,” Maria Tangros, a Swedish mother who managed to get to Kyiv on a private plane, said in another video published on BioTexCom’s website. Parents, she said, are “panicking how to get here.”
The babies’ parents are now in the United States, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, China, France, Romania, Austria, Mexico and Portugal, the company said.
Lyudmila Denisova, a human rights ombudsman for Ukraine’s Parliament, said the stranded babies underscore a pressing need for the country to bar foreigners from hiring Ukrainian women as surrogate mothers.
A human rights official in the presidential administration, Nikolai Kuleba, has also demanded an end to the practice. “Ukraine is just turning into an online store for little ones,” he said.
In an indication of the scale of the baby business in the country, Denisova said at a news conference in Kyiv that expectant surrogate mothers may give birth to as many as 1,000 babies before travel restrictions are lifted.
Tochilovsky said that number would be reached only if travel restrictions, in place now for two months, extend for another seven months and all of the surrogate mothers come to term before the travel bans are lifted.
Olha Pysana, an official with one company, World Center of Baby, said that surrogacy is safe and provides an irreplaceable service to infertile couples.
“We believe people are searching for a scandal out of nowhere,” Pysana said. “All the children are genetically linked to the parents. Unfortunately, because of COVID, the parents are just not here in Ukraine.”