Covid-19 lockdowns have led to heartbreaking delays for many parents eager to claim their infants born through surrogacy. With travel restrictions to Ukraine now easing, there have been a flurry of emotional homecomings. But dozens of babies remain uncollected, and the situation has shone a harsh light on the country's booming surrogacy industry.

"We waited three days to meet our baby. It felt so long, I can’t imagine having to wait three months."

After finally getting permission to board a repatriation flight meant for Ukrainian nationals and undergoing a subsequent mandatory quarantine, Sangy and Bhanwar met their baby for the first time in a Kyiv nursery on June 9.

The British couple is one of more than 120 from around the world who have found themselves caught out by one of the stranger consequences of the global Covid-19 pandemic: Scores of surrogate babies await uncollected, their genetic parents prevented from entering Ukraine to pick them up. The baby of one Chinese couple, born before Europe went into lockdown, is now almost four months old.

BioTexCom, Ukraine’s largest surrogacy operation, says it is currently caring for some 60 infants; at the height of the crisis there were 80. Clinic director Albert Tochilovsky attributes the reduction to his decision in April to release footage of the dozens of babies in his care, lined up in parallel rows of cribs.

"We needed the public to know what was happening," he said. "And we succeeded."

Within days the story was making headlines around the world. Soon after, Ukrainian authorities began granting travel ban exemptions for desperate parents, Sangy and Bhanway among them.

But the footage also sparked a thorny debate about the ethics of Ukraine’s booming commercial surrogacy industry.

‘Baby factories’ 

Until 2015, wealthy couples pursuing surrogacy had a glut of clinics to choose from in Thailand, Nepal or India. But as allegations of exploitation mounted, one by one they closed their doors to foreigners. Business in Ukraine and Georgia – some of the few places in the world that still allow commercial surrogacy – has been booming ever since. And with surrogacy banned outright in many countries – including France and Germany – and heavily restricted elsewhere, there is no shortage of demand.

Maria Dmytriyeva, a women’s rights advocate at Ukraine’s Democracy Development Centre, said that, before the footage was released, "there was very little journalistic interest" in Ukraine’s surrogacy industry. But now, "People are much more aware about these baby factories."

Among those outraged by the footage was Ukraine’s ombudsman for children’s rights, Mykola Kuleba. Writing on his Facebook page, he said the pandemic had revealed Ukraine to be an "international online store for babies" with infants treated as nothing more than "commodities". He has since called for a blanket ban on foreigners accessing Ukrainian surrogacy services – a market he said accounts for more than 80 percent of the country’s surrogate births. However, with no official data collected on Ukrainian surrogacy, the real figures are impossible to know.

Exploitation of vulnerable women 

NGOs around the world have also seized on the issue as a new battleground for women’s rights.

At the beginning of June, some 200 women’s organisations signed a letter to the Ukrainian president, calling for an end to "reproductive tourism" in Ukraine. One French signatory, Mouvement du Nid, argued that the current situation in Ukraine "relies on the exploitation of society’s most vulnerable" – that is, poor women, who they argue must relinquish control of their bodies once the contract is signed.

Anti-surrogacy campaigners cite, for example, the trauma of being forced to abort foetuses if commissioning parents opt to implant multiple fertilised embryos but only want to take one baby home. Women's advocacy group La Strada receives around 100 calls a year regarding surrogacy, including from women suffering medical complications or psychological harm as a result of their work. Vice president Kateryna Cherepakha of the NGO's Ukrainian chapter said she regularly comes across surrogate contracts that "contain provisions violating civil legal norms". Other women struggle with having to part with the baby after birth.

Life-changing money

And yet there is no shortage of women willing to sign up.

In the Georgian capital Tbilisi, 36-year-old single mother Nana is seven months pregnant with twins, her second surrogacy with the New Life clinic. She said carrying other people's babies offers economic independence in a country "where finding a job to provide for your family isn’t easy". She’ll receive a lump sum of US$18,000 when she gives birth in addition to monthly payments of several hundred dollars.

It’s life-changing money, and significantly more than the average national wage. She had only praise for the clinic she works for, explaining that, "whatever time it is, day or night, I have the right to get in touch with my doctor and get a consultation".

She said she wouldn't hesitate to be a surrogate for a third time if she needed to.

‘Mutual need’ or ‘economic coercion’?

The industry’s detractors, many of them feminist activists, believe surrogacy simply shouldn’t be an option for women like Nana. But those who have reaped the rewards of surrogacy say that view is condescending and paternalistic.

Nursing her week-old baby in her Kyiv apartment, Sangy is clear about the contract she entered into with her surrogate. "We all exchange work for money," she said. "Who are we to decide what women are allowed to do with their bodies?" She described the parent-surrogate relationship as one of "mutual need", a simple transaction between a woman who needs money and a couple desperate to become parents.

But Dmytriyeva and her allies insist that argument misses the point and whitewashes "the economic coercion" of the disadvantaged women the industry relies on. Her NGO is launching a petition that calls for all forms of commercial surrogacy to be banned in Ukraine, for both foreigners and Ukrainians.

But she is doubtful it will bear fruit. "It’s shameful that we’ve become a country where people can buy babies à la carte," she said.