International surrogacy is not as dead as you think

Parents struggling to reach their babies, babies spending months without their parents, surrogates raising other people's babies ... Is international surrogacy over? No. 

Two months ago, I wrote about an Australian couple whose child was due to be born to a Canadian surrogate. They struggled to enter the country at the very time the borders were sealing up. They did get in, and a few weeks later, their daughter, Dina, was born. They plan to return home next week.

Not every surrogacy story has such a happy ending, though — or, these days, any ending at all. Recently, there have been some alarming stories about the surrogate babies and families that the crisis has left stranded in limbo. 

One story was about a group of parents considering chartering a private plane to fetch their babies. 

Currently, Brilliant Beginnings has four families in Ukraine that are struggling to get back to the UK, and another ten families that need to get there for the birth of babies. It also has six families in the US struggling to return, and seven surrogates expecting in the next few months...

For Ed Knox and his wife Olivia the situation has become so desperate that they have considered joining a group of other UK parents chartering a private plane to Ukraine. This would be a means of working around the lack of commercial flights and would leave at the end of May.

“Cost-wise, it’s a drop in the ocean if you look at how much we’ve spent on surrogacy and fertility treatments in the last six years,” says Ed Knox. He and Olivia are expecting a baby boy via surrogate in Ukraine in July.

Lucy Harley-McKeown "Parents are hiring jets to see their surrogate children for the first time." Wired UK. 13 May, 2020.

Another was about how surrogates are being asked to care for the babies until the parents can actually make it into the country. 

Due to the coronavirus travel ban, the email read, the couple wouldn’t be able to get into the US to collect their son. Would Martin [the surrogate] look after him, until the restrictions were lifted?

“I waited a full day before replying, because I didn’t know what to do,” says Martin, who is 22 and works as a barista and childminder in Lake Bay, Washington. “I have nothing to look after a baby!”

After thinking about it, she agreed. Martin gave birth to baby Steven on 23 February, and took him home. She is raising him alongside her two children, aged three and five, until his parents can get into the US, sort the paperwork, and bring Steven home to China...

Surrogates and surrogacy agencies are scrambling to look after babies themselves. “It’s unprecedented for a surrogate to be looking after the baby,” says Rich Geisler, a Californian surrogacy lawyer. “We as an industry really try to avoid that. We want to avoid the possibility of the surrogate bonding with the child.”

Sirin Kale. "Surrogates left holding the baby as coronavirus rules strand parents." The Guardian. 14 May 2020

Then there was this video released by a Ukrainian surrogacy agency. It pans across dozens of babies in identical bassinets, all waiting to be picked up by foreign parents who couldn't get into the country. I confess, it was impossible not to think "baby factory." 

About 100 surrogate babies are waiting for parents to pick them up in the country, about half of them at BioTexCom's facilities, the Ukrainian Parliament's human rights commissioner, Lyudmila Denisova, told The Associated Press. The numbers could rise to the thousands, she said, if coronavirus travel restrictions are extended.

Charles Maynes. "Surrogate-Born Babies Wait In Ukraine Amid Coronavirus Travel Restrictions." NPR. 15 May, 2020.

The current situation creates many troubling issues for international surrogacy. Many people — the surrogates, the parents, the agencies — are concerned about the bonding that will inevitably take place if a surrogate starts raising the baby she carried. What will separation be like for that infant a few months, or more, from now? How about the babies in that dormitory in Ukraine? The nurses attest that they are giving the infants lots of love, but let's face it, institutionalization does not typically provide a good start for a young human.  

Then there are questions of money. These parents have already paid tens of thousands of dollars to get this far, and now they will have to pay even more for round-the-clock childcare, or the out-of-country healthcare, or the extra travel expenses that come with these difficult times. What will happen to them? Will some be unable to follow through? 

All of this might make you think that international surrogacy is doomed. It certainly crossed my mind. But no, you'd be wrong. At least here in Canada. 

According to Cindy Wasser, a Toronto fertility lawyer, business is even more brisk than it was last year. She says that in a typical year, she'd have about 400 international surrogacy clients, but not quite halfway through the year, she's already surpassed that number. "There's been virtually no slowdown in the new consultations," she says. 

What's more, Wasser expects things to get even busier in the coming weeks. "What I've told the agencies I've spoken to is: 'Brace yourself for an onslaught. Go out and get surrogates.'" 

The central reason for the uptick, she believes, is that the Canadian government acted swiftly and compassionately to allow foreign intended parents into the country to collect their babies. Two orders in council were issued in March. One allowed families that already had a Canadian-born surrogate child to come in with that child to collect another. (The parents were accompanying a Canadian citizen minor who was re-entering the country.) The other allowed in foreign nationals who were immediate family members of a dependent child who is a Canadian citizen — the surrogate baby. (This fell under family reunification.) The definition of dependent child specifically mentions children "born through the application of assisted human reproduction technologies."

The various levels of government have also been efficient and kind about issuing documents like birth certificates and passports, says Wasser. 

With roadblocks in countries like Ukraine and Georgia, propping the door open like this may make Canada even more popular as a surrogacy destination than it already is.

"I think Canada shines," says Wasser. She calls this country a "beacon" in the international surrogacy community.

Not all Canadians support this position, however. After my earlier piece in March, I heard from people who did not agree with exemptions for intended parents. There was concern about health. One writer criticized allowing people in from then-hotspot countries like Spain and France. Another wrote: "I am a frontline worker. I am putting my family at risk to help my fellow citizen... I am very unhappy people are allowed in, bringing risk to all Canadians while our government is doing the best job they can to protect everybody... In time of crisis, it becomes evident that international surrogacy just does not make sense." 

Allowing entry to foreign parents whose journey began before the pandemic seems not only humane but pragmatic. It's best for everyone that these parents and children are united. But to actively promote future surrogacies for parents living outside the country is questionable. Our borders are still officially closed. Travel is severely disrupted. Our hospitals face a backlog of elective surgeries. We are bracing for a second wave of COVID-19. If ever there was a time to limit surrogacy to domestic IPs, this might be it.


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