KYIV, Ukraine — Tears streamed down Yevhenia Troyan’s face as her flight took off from Northern Cyprus, one of the odd corners of Europe where Ukrainian surrogacy agencies have set up shop.
The flight in February was her last chance to return home to Ukraine before its borders slammed shut with coronavirus travel bans. But she had to leave — abandon, she felt — the baby girl she had just given birth to on behalf of a lesbian couple in London.
“I had the feeling I was leaving my own baby behind,” she said.
In one of the more bizarre consequences of coronavirus travel restrictions, biological parents, babies and surrogate mothers have become scattered and sometimes stranded in multiple countries for months this year.
Ukraine, with its relatively permissive reproductive health laws and an abundance of willing mothers among a poor population, is a hub of the international business, executives in the industry and women’s rights advocates say.
But Ukrainian law bans surrogacy for same-sex couples or for clients who wish to select the sex of the child. In response, a branch of the Ukrainian industry began moving women to other jurisdictions for impregnation and birth, often to legal gray zones like the largely unrecognized, Turkish-backed, splinter state of Northern Cyprus.
An “ideal destination for all family models,” one company offering the service, Surrogacy 365, says on its website.
The women travel to have an embryo implanted, return to Ukraine for seven months of pregnancy, then travel again to give birth.
Virus travel restrictions drew attention earlier this year for blocking heterosexual parents from retrieving their babies inside Ukraine. At one point, 79 babies were stacked up in Kyiv, cared for by nurses, in cribs at a hotel.
In neighboring Russia, where surrogacy is also legal, a member of the Kremlin’s advisory council on human rights said that as many as 1,000 babies born in surrogacy are stranded, the Guardian reported. Virus travel bans also stranded babies born by Ukrainian surrogate mothers in third countries.
It is a very common illegal business in such countries as Northern Cyprus, Transnistria, Abkhazia and other unrecognized statelets, said Sergii Antonov, a lawyer and authority on reproductive law in Ukraine.
In Northern Cyprus, the Ukrainian mothers give birth without a legal surrogacy contract. Instead, they renounce custody after birth, which allows the genetic parents to adopt the children. It is a legal process that can stretch for several weeks.
In February and March, 14 Ukrainian mothers, fearful of being stranded by virus travel bans, left Northern Cyprus after giving birth but before completing the transfer to the genetic parents, leaving behind a crop of babies in legal limbo.
An ensuing dispute between agents and the mothers has spilled into the news media in Ukraine and shed light on what is usually a secretive business. The women say they endured shoddy medical care and mandatory C-sections, assertions supported by medical records of postpartum treatment. One baby died.
“These illegal programs became visible” only because the virus travel bans disrupted their business model, said Svitlana Burkovska, director of Mothers’ Force, a nongovernmental group.
Ms. Burkovska estimated that last year, before the virus travel bans, about 3,000 Ukrainian women traveled abroad for surrogacy births and another 30,000 traveled to donate eggs, mostly out of public view. “It is very risky” for the women giving birth, she said.
Her group is now investigating an underground maternity ward in an apartment in the town of Famagusta in Northern Cyprus. The mothers described it as a clandestine hospital. They said the nurses spoke only Turkish, and the doctors didn’t know their medical histories.
“When I came to the hospital a doctor was surprised to hear I had a C-section before,” said one of the women, who offered only her first name, Ira, because she does not want family and friends to know of her work as a surrogate mother.
It was too late to follow safe practice and deliver her next child by Cesarean, as her cervix was opening, she said. “An anesthesiologist arrived wearing a down jacket,” rather than scrubs, inside the makeshift hospital, and she gave birth.
Several hours later, she watched the baby die on a table nearby while medical workers were trying to save her own life, she said. She was bleeding internally and vomiting.
“They obviously did not have enough staff,” Ira said. “They put the baby aside, it was a nice healthy-looking girl. She did not breathe but I saw her moving,” Ira said, crying while recalling the ordeal, which took place in February.
After the death, the Turkish doctors demanded the women give birth by C-section, though one was allowed a vaginal birth.
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“I begged to give birth naturally,” Ms. Troyan said. “They promised me I could, but the doctor suddenly came and said I am having a C-section, right now.”
An agent sent a text message to her phone: “We don’t need more deaths.”
Another surrogate mother in the group, who offered only her first name, Yana, who is 22, carried a baby girl for a gay couple from England. The baby was born in the 36th week by C-section. “I could have easily carried the baby full term,” she said.
As the virus spread in February, the surrogacy agency asked the mothers to remain in Famagusta and feign parenthood of the children until paperwork was completed, but they left instead.
“I was told to pretend, if the police came to check, that the biological father is my common-law husband,” said one of the mothers, Yulia, 40, who carried twin girls for a gay couple from England.
Yulia is in touch with the couple, who paid more than 100,000 euros, or $118,000. But the couple has been unable to pick up the twins, she said. The babies are temporarily in foster care, Yulia said.
When she left, Ms. Troyan feared for the uncertain legal future of the girl she had given birth to, and she cried. In her case, however, the gay parents from Britain managed to retrieve the infant from Northern Cyprus.
Not all Ukrainian women who travel abroad to provide surrogacy services endured such ordeals.
Lyudmyla Medvedchuk, 40, had an embryo transfer in Ukraine and gave birth in Poland in mid-February, without incident. Ms. Medvedchuk, in an interview, said she enjoyed the experience of being a surrogate mother and planned to do so again.
But back in Ukraine, the group who gave birth in Northern Cyprus struggled even to receive reimbursements for postpartum treatments.
Two agents who arranged the births blamed the mothers for abandoning the babies and lashed out publicly. The agents published the mothers’ names online to intimidate them, and posted on social media disparaging comments calling them “cattle.” Reached by phone, one of the agents declined to comment.
Carlos Alberto Leiva Signes, a case manager with Surrogacy 365, declined to discuss the company’s operations, writing “you are requesting confidential information.” Two gay couples in Britain, contacted through the mothers, declined to comment.
Back in Ukraine, the women’s lack of documents showing renunciation of custody leaves them fearful that child welfare officials will investigate them after they request postpartum care without infants to show for the births.
“I am afraid I can be arrested,” said Yana.
Doctors, she said, have started asking her a question she cannot answer: “Where is your baby?”
Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.