British mums: Older women using surrogates is a booming industry — but with payment banned in Britain SALLY WILLIAMS investigates the controversial new destination for infertile couples.
- Sally Williams spoke to surrogate mothers at a studio in Kiev, Ukraine
- Specialist estimates over 2,000 surrogate babies were born in Ukraine last year
- Natasha Boroda, 30, will be paid upwards of £12,488 during her pregnancy
- The mother-of-one who works as a teacher revealed she’s motivated by money
- As well as helping an infertile couple, she wants the money for her son’s future
- The British couple will pay the surrogacy agency approximately £35,417
- Other surrogate mothers told of saving money from pregnancy to buy a flat
When I meet Natasha Boroda, 30, in a studio in Kiev, Ukraine, I’m struck by how well she looks. Beautiful hair, beautiful skin, red dress. Her eyes gleam with excitement, especially when talking about the future.
She’s pregnant, of course. ‘To discover I was pregnant was the happiest moment,’ she says. She’d wanted more children, but wasn’t sure how it was going to happen — she separated from her son’s father three years ago, before Artur was born, and hasn’t had a serious relationship since. But then this pregnancy is far from usual.
Last summer, Natasha took a bus from her home town of Pryluky in northern Ukraine and travelled two and a half hours to a clinic in Kiev. There she was told to lie on a hospital bed where a catheter was threaded up into her uterus so an embryo could be delivered into position. The embryo had been created in a petri dish a few days earlier, with the sperm of a man and the egg of woman Natasha didn’t know, in the hope it would grow into a child whom Natasha would give birth to, but probably never see. The babies of surrogate mothers are whisked away as soon as they’re born, to lessen the risk of attachment.
Sally Williams spoke to women in Ukraine like mother-of-one Natasha Boroda, 30, (pictured) who are surrogate mothers for interfile couples
The big surprise is how easy it was. ‘I thought it would be painful, but when it was over, I said to the doctor, “Is that it!?”’
She later signed a contract with the surrogacy agency and was told the nationality of the prospective parents: British.
Ukraine, Georgia and the United States are just about the only countries in the world in which commercial surrogacy is legal. In the UK, surrogates can be paid ‘reasonable expenses’ to cover such costs as travel, loss of earnings and extra food. France, Germany, Italy and Spain prohibit all forms of surrogacy, as do Japan and Pakistan.
For many years, South-East Asia was a popular surrogacy destination. But Thailand barred foreigners from paying for surrogacy in 2015. Nepal banned it, even when unpaid, later that year. And India banned foreign clients a few months later. For many British couples, Ukraine is now the place where their prayers may be answered.
Especially older mothers. In the UK, government guidelines recommend doctors do not offer IVF to women over 40 on the NHS.
‘In Ukraine there is no age limit,’ says Anastasia Aleksandrova, who runs the department which looks after English-speaking clients at BioTexCom, the agency facilitating Natasha’s surrogacy. ‘We have a lot of women over 50. With the help of donor eggs, they become mothers and the women are happy, because they have been struggling for 15 years and nothing worked.’
Natasha seems to embody all the paradoxes of the ideal surrogate. She is compassionate towards the infertile strangers and cares for the baby as her own. But is keeping her love in check.
‘I thought for some time about if I would be able to have a baby and then give that baby to strangers,’ she says of this, her first experience of being a surrogate. ‘But then I got used to the idea. The baby is not mine. I am just a carrier.’ Natasha became a surrogate mother because she thinks it’s a worthy thing to do, and because she is paid a sum that seems huge in a country where the average monthly salary is 110 euros (£98). Natasha trained as a law and history teacher. But teachers’ salaries are so low — 200 euros (£181) a month — she earns more working in her local delicatessen.
Over the course of her pregnancy, from implantation to birth, she will be paid up to 14,000 euros (£12,488) not including expenses — around 2,000 euros (£1,784) for food and maternity clothes as well as compensation any childcare costs.
Stacy Owen, 42, (pictured with surrogate twins Aleah and Eli) from Sutton went to Ukraine for surrogacy after ten miscarriages
The British couple will pay the surrogacy agency approximately 39,000 euros (£35,417).
Natasha admits she is motivated by money — ‘it’s my son and his future that pushed me to do this’ — but she isn’t mercenary. ‘This isn’t a service or a job, I see this as help.’
But still she plans to keep the pregnancy secret. ‘I’m going to quit my job at the end of this year, so there is no need to tell colleagues. And I don’t have too many friends at home.’ She goes on, ‘I don’t want to be misunderstood. There are people who think only mothers should carry a baby.’
Surrogacy and egg- and sperm-donation were sanctioned in Ukraine in 2002. Surrogate mothers have no parental rights over the child they carry. And, because Ukraine is still recovering from near economic collapse following political unrest, the cost is competitive. A surrogate baby costs more than $100,000 (£78,548) in the U.S.; around 40,000 euros (£35,682) in Ukraine.
The Ministry of Healthcare in Ukraine doesn’t keep official records of surrogacy. There are no available statistics. But Sergii Antonov, a lawyer who specialises in medical and reproductive law in Ukraine and the Czech Republic, estimates that more than 2,000 surrogate babies were born in Ukraine last year, ‘an increase of more than 300 per cent over the past five years.’
What options are available to prospective parents?
The VIP package includes a cook and housekeeper — and parents can also choose the sex of their child
He says there are now over 40 reproductive clinics in the Ukraine; 20 of which offer surrogacy programmes, with foreigners accounting for 94 per cent of all clients in 2016-2017, according to the charity Families Through Surrogacy.
Current UK law states that the surrogate and her husband have legal rights over the child, even if the child is not biologically theirs. A parental order is required in order for the child to be handed over.
And although ‘paying for a baby’ is not allowed, lump-sum expenses are often ‘dressed up as expenses,’ says retired judge Sir James Munby, formerly the President of the Family Division of the High Court of England and Wales. Costs can amount to as much as £15,000. He argues UK surrogacy is already a thoroughly commercial activity, and it’s ‘probably better to . . . move to a proper system of regulation rather than prohibition.’
But until the law is clarified, more and more British couples are using foreign surrogates.
BioTexCom Center for Human Reproduction is situated behind security gates in Kiev. It offers surrogacy, egg donation and IVF to couples from around the world.
Mother-of-three Kateryna Hobzhyla, 34, (pictured) has decided to keep her surrogacy pregnancy a secret and pass it off as weight gain
With its series of large terracotta buildings, ornate stairwells, shiny floors, coffee machines and potted plants, the feel is part hospital; part well-oiled machine. There are gynaecologists, embryologists, fertility specialists, uniformed medical staff, as well as a social media team for the promotion of ‘packages’ and ‘discount deals’.
The core of the business — egg extraction, fertilisation, embryo transfers — takes place in the main clinic. Surrogates deliver the actual babies in surrogacy-friendly maternity hospitals in Kiev. Young women, some surrogate mothers, some egg donors, queue for check-ups and ultrasound scans, each holding folders of medical notes.
The ‘clients’, meanwhile, couples who’ve been through years of infertility’s hopes and misses, wait in an adjacent building in a room with leather sofas and pastries.
Sixty-three couples were seen this afternoon, here after exhausting all other options. I was picked up from the airport with a British and a French couple; each with a long tale of grief about how they got here.
‘Surrogacy was our last hope,’ says Stacy Owen, 42, who works in educational governance and lives with her husband in Sutton, Surrey. They had twins with a Ukraine surrogate last year.
They had tried very hard to get pregnant. The good news: Stacy conceived. The bad news: she miscarried. Again and again.
After ten miscarriages over 12 years, and ‘thousands of pounds on expensive drugs’, Stacy and her husband settled on surrogacy. They went to the Ukraine because ‘it’s cheap, the law is tight and it’s a three-hour flight from the UK.’
The couple paid 30,000 euros (£24,244) for an ‘all inclusive guaranteed package’ plus an extra 3,000 euros (£2,724) as they had twins. (BioTexCom has withdrawn the Economy package, and now offers Standard, 39,000 euros (£35,417) and VIP, 49,000 euros (£43,710)).
The surrogate mother was 20 and had a two-year-old son. ‘We flew out at 37 weeks because twins are often born early, but they didn’t arrive until 39 weeks and 5 days. It was a natural birth. Everyone was like, “Are they ever coming?”’ She goes on, ‘By the time the surrogate got home, she’d been away from her son for nearly three months. Quite a sacrifice.’
Mother-of-one Elena Oucharenko, 37, (pictured) had twins for an Italian couple last year and is now in the early pregnancy stages of having a child for a British couple
Stacy is still in contact with the surrogate. ‘She did something wonderful for us and I’d like the children to know who she is. Nothing should be hidden about that. It was such a unique, unconventional and joyous experience.’
BioTexCom’s Anastasia, a pragmatic 36-year-old with hoop earrings and dark nail polish, explains how it works. Like all Ukraine’s agencies, BioTexCom practises ‘host’, not ‘traditional’ surrogacy (where the surrogate’s egg is used with the man’s sperm). In other words, the clinics deal with surrogates hiring out their womb.
Surrogate mothers are normally no younger than 20; no older than 38. And before they’re allowed to become surrogates have to undergo background checks and medical testing. This includes an internal examination to ensure her uterus is in good shape and she’s free of STDs. Once accepted, they are not allowed to have sex until after the 12th week of pregnancy ‘so as not to endanger the pregnancy’, says Anastasia.
She needs to have had at least one baby of her own. ‘Pregnancy is unpredictable,’ Anastasia explains. ‘I know of a case where there were complications after birth and the surrogate mother lost her uterus. To lose your ability to have your own family is not a good thing.’
Surrogates carrying babies for UK couples also have to be single. ‘The legal process is simpler for the parents,’ says Anastasia. If the surrogate is single, the child has a good claim to British nationality.
As for prospective parents, the company does not accept unmarried or same sex couples. Couples need to have proven infertility. For example, at least four failed IVF cycles. And the baby needs to be genetically related to at least one of the parents.
The surrogacy package includes transport and hotel accommodation, as the process of getting passports and confirming nationality for the baby can take up to four months for the UK.
Surrogates and prospective parents are matched by doctors. ‘They go on such things as blood group compatibility,’ says Anastasia. Contact between both parties is down to individuals.
Anastasia says there is often suspicion on both sides. ‘Surrogates are afraid the couple will change their mind and not take the baby. Couples are afraid the surrogate will not give the baby to them.’
Couples want to know if the surrogate is healthy, lives in a safe area, has a good support system, what her children will think when she returns empty-handed from the hospital. ‘Some couples say, “We don’t want the surrogate to eat meat at all, we want her to be vegan and hike two hours a day.”
Stacy (pictured with her husband and their twins) revealed that she’s still in contact with her children’s surrogate mother and wants them to know who she is
‘And I explain: “A surrogate mother has her own life: she is helping you, she is not serving you and you should respect her lifestyle,” ’ says Anastasia.
Some things must be agreed on: for example, how many embryos will be transferred (triplets are not permitted); if a Down’s pregnancy will be terminated. Those who buy the VIP package, which includes a housekeeper and cook for their stay in the Ukraine. can also choose the sex of their child.
Kateryna Hobzhyla, 34, is pregnant with her fourth child. ‘I love children,’ she says. The manager of a supermarket in Uzyn, a small town in northern Ukraine, she talks of her son, Constantine, 18; and of her two daughters, Anna, 12 and Polina, six. She shows me photographs of a birthday cake she baked for Polina, an elaborate confection of icing and sweets.
She is an affectionate mother, close to her children, which is why she can’t easily express her feelings about the baby she is carrying — her first experience of being a surrogate.
‘It’s going to be difficult,’ she says, of not seeing the baby after labour. ‘Even though the baby is not genetically my baby I am carrying it in my heart.’
Kateryna studied cookery at college before getting married to a businessman at 17. She divorced her husband four years ago because he had become abusive and violent. She subsequently lost her family home, which was owned by her mother-in-law and now rents a small apartment.
Her plan with the surrogacy money is to buy a flat, ‘a home for my two girls.’ Not that it was an easy decision. ‘I had to be ready mentally,’ she explains. In the end the person who reassured her was her son, Constantine. ‘He said, “I am your son. The baby inside you is not your child.”’
The clinic arranged a Skype call with the couple she’s having the baby for. ‘I could see it was difficult for the intended mother because she won’t carry her own child. She was silent. Only the father talked to me.’ He quizzed Kateryna on her health and how she feels and asked if they could buy Christmas presents for her children. ‘When I saw them I realised I’m doing something great. They made me feel like an angel.’
Nevertheless Kateryna is keeping the pregnancy secret. She says she’ll pass the pregnancy off as weight gain, explaining that when the bump is really big she’ll be in Kiev, where all surrogates are moved in preparation for delivery. When she returns home with a flat tummy, she’ll say: ‘I’ve got fit’.
But she has told her older daughter. ‘I explained I’m a kind of incubator. I said, “If we take an egg from a chicken and put it in an incubator and keep it warm, a chick will hatch.” Anna accepted this and asked when they’d have their own house. She said, “Mummy is doing a good thing.”’
Elena Oucharenko, 37, an artist who runs creative workshops for children, lives in Borzna, northern Ukraine, with her son, Misha, 13. She is in the early stages of pregnancy with a baby she’s carrying for a British couple.
Stacy (pictured) and her husband spent 30,000 euros (£24,244) for an ‘all inclusive guaranteed package’ plus an extra 3,000 euros (£2,724) as they had twins
Last year she had twins for an Italian couple. ‘I treated the pregnancy the same as with my son,’ she says. ‘I stroked my belly and spoke to the babies. I said, “Mum and Dad are waiting for you. They love you very much.”’
She gave them names from Ukranian fairy tales. ‘One was very active, and I called her “bunny”; and the other was quieter and I called her a name which means something very sweet and nice.’
The girls were born in May 2017. Elena didn’t see them or even hear them cry. ‘It was a Caesarean and I was sedated. I woke up without a belly, without the babies.’ She was given pills to suppress her milk supply. ‘I knew I wouldn’t see them, but yes, I had a few days when I was up and down and ready to burst into tears at any moment.’
She hadn’t had any contact with the couple. She only knew they were Italian. Then, about three days after giving birth, she met them. ‘They were visiting the babies in the hospital and the father fell on his knees and was crying. I saw something I had never seen before: pure happiness.’
She continues: ‘They asked if I wanted to see the babies. I said yes.’ She smiles, ‘My baby girls are beautiful.’ She is still in touch with the couple, who live in Turin. ‘I have pictures, starting from when they were one month old, she says. ‘They feel like family.’
Elena is saving the money for her son’s education. He is good at languages and she wants him to study at a university aboard, ‘most likely Italy’. The most important thing is my baby — my son — and the couple I’m going to help.’
However there is profound anxiety in Ukraine surrounding the ethics of women selling their wombs in a global marketplace.
‘With advances in science, technology and the ease of air travel, cross-border surrogacy is very difficult to regulate and police,’ says Sam Everingham, global director of Families Through Surrogacy.
Iryna Sysoyenko, a Ukrainian deputy (MP), has co-authored a Bill to ban foreigners from using surrogates, or at the very least to stop couples from countries where the practice is illegal, as in Spain. ‘We don’t want to be seen as a country where you can fly in, choose a woman and have a baby,’ she has said.
Anastasia sees it differently. ‘Our women become surrogates because they want to take control of their lives. When I am accused of exploiting women, I say: “Well, yes, of course, it would be much better if she left her family and went abroad to earn little money and get exploited there.”’
‘There are women who are desperate and do it for the money,’ admits Elena, her hand on her growing belly. But not all. She views it differently. ‘I see it as mutual help: I am helping the couple; the couple are helping me.’