Stranded Babies, Hurting Moms: COVID-19 Crisis Highlights Problems With Surrogacy

In one instance, 46 babies purchased by people from the U.S., Italy, Spain and elsewhere born through surrogacy are stranded in a Ukraine hotel-turned-hospital, as the country has closed its borders because of the pandemic.

Nurses care for newborn babies at the Kyiv’s Venice hotel on May 15. More than 100 babies born to surrogate mothers have been stranded in Ukraine, as their foreign parents cannot collect them due to border closures imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Nurses care for newborn babies at the Kyiv’s Venice hotel on May 15. More than 100 babies born to surrogate mothers have been stranded in Ukraine, as their foreign parents cannot collect them due to border closures imposed during the coronavirus pandemic. (photo: Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc in many industries — including the buying and selling of babies through commercial surrogacy. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, babies are stranded in different countries than their genetic parents while surrogates and agencies are scrambling to care for them.

And according to human-rights advocates and religious leaders who oppose surrogacy, these pandemic-related problems have brought to light just some of the flaws that necessarily occur in a deeply unethical industry.

In Ukraine, 46 babies from the U.S., Italy, Spain and elsewhere born through surrogacy are stranded in a Kyiv (formerly known as Kiev) hotel-turned-hospital, as the country has closed its borders because of the pandemic. A heartbreaking video from the surrogacy company BioTexCom shows the babies in cribs, attended by babysitters and nurses. The situation has caused Ukrainian officials to call for banning the practice.

Ukraine’s human-rights ombudswoman Lyudmila Denisova called for a ban on foreign surrogacy, writing that “providing such services to foreign citizens can lead primarily to violation of children’s rights and to a situation in which Ukraine is incapable of protecting its citizens. … Children in Ukraine should not be human-trafficking objects.”

Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Latin bishops called for a complete ban on surrogacy in a statement. They said of BioTexCom’s video that it “shows an improvised children’s room and 46 crying babies, deprived of maternal touch, parental warmth, selfless care, much-needed love, but are seen as a purchased product for which the buyer did not come. Such a demonstration of contempt for the human person and his dignity is unacceptable.”

The U.S. coronavirus travel restrictions have also left babies born domestically through surrogates stranded. Sierra Martin, a 22-year-old Washington state resident and surrogate mom who gave birth to the child of a same-sex couple from China, told The Guardian about caring for the little boy alongside her own two children in these unusual circumstances. “I love having the baby snuggles,” Martin said, “but it’s definitely hard knowing that he is not mine. I love him, but I know that he has to go back to his own parents eventually.”


Church Teaching

In the 1987 document Donum Vitae, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote that surrogate motherhood is “contrary to the unity of marriage and to the dignity of the procreation of the human person. Surrogate motherhood represents an objective failure to meet the obligations of maternal love, of conjugal fidelity and of responsible motherhood; it offends the dignity and the right of the child to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up by his own parents; it sets up, to the detriment of families, a division between the physical, psychological and moral elements which constitute those families.”

Indeed, the problems that arise when surrogacy eliminates a child’s right “to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up by his own parents” are not limited to the complications that occur in a global pandemic.

Legal battles have repeatedly arisen with surrogacy, including the case of an Australian couple who left their son with Down syndrome, Gammy, with his Thai surrogate and took his twin sister, Pipah. The husband, David Farnell, was later revealed to be a convicted sex offender, which led to additional global outrage. A judge ultimately determined that Pipah would stay with the Farnells, despite a determination that she “was not safe alone in the company of Mr. Farnell.”

In another contentious case, a single man who wanted twins was sued by his surrogate who refused to abort one of the babies when she became pregnant with triplets.


Physical and Emotional Risks

Jennifer Lahl, president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture, told the Register about the toll the process takes on surrogates and babies and how its proponents have used this pandemic to advance its legalization.

Lahl pointed out that commercial surrogacy has been heavily restricted or banned in many countries that were former hubs for it, including Thailand, Nepal and Cambodia. “They saw women and children harmed, so the market shifted. … It shifts to where there’s impoverished women until there’s enough agitation among lawmakers of those countries,” she said.

“Surrogate pregnancy is risky; it’s much riskier than a naturally conceived pregnancy,” said Lahl, who was formerly a pediatric critical care nurse. “It’s not uncommon at all for surrogate mothers to be pregnant with twins or triplets, so that immediately puts the mother and babies at risk,” she explained. “But also if a surrogate mother is just pregnant with one baby, she’s pregnant with a foreign baby, and her body immediately rejects it; so, immediately, she’s going to have higher instances of preeclampsia, maternal hypertension, gestational diabetes — and, of course, that puts the babies at risk.”

One recent study of 124 gestational surrogates who had 494 pregnancies found, “Neonates born from commissioned embryos and carried by gestational surrogates have increased adverse perinatal outcomes, including preterm birth, low birth weight, hypertension, maternal gestational diabetes and placenta previa, compared with singletons conceived spontaneously and carried by the same woman.”

Unfortunately, the risks associated with surrogacy can include death. “I have reported on three surrogate mothers who have died in the United States; and just a few months ago, we had a surrogate mother die in my state of California,” Lahl said, in reference to surrogate Michelle Reaves, a wife and mother of two, who died in January of an amniotic fluid embolism.

Lahl called it “scandalous” that in the United States “we still have horrific maternal statistics on maternal health, maternal death; and then to add on to it a practice that puts pregnant mothers at risk, I think, is just morally reprehensible.”


Commodifies Women

In addition to the medical risks the surrogate faces, Lahl pointed out that the practice commodifies women, effectively turning a woman into an “incubator.” She said “nobody wants to acknowledge that, oftentimes, especially in the case of same-sex couples, an egg donor has been exploited, and the surrogate mother has been exploited, because men use eggs from one woman and the womb from another woman.”

The process takes an emotional toll on women whose bodies are connected with the children they carry. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends “mental-health counselors” for “potential attachment issues for the gestational carrier during pregnancy and after delivery.”

Lahl said that when her dog was born, it was considered “inhumane” under California animal-cruelty laws to take him away from his mother until he was eight weeks old, yet “we will take a human baby right out of its mother’s womb and plop it in to the arms of strangers because they have a commercial contract … and we think that there’s no trauma to that mother and that baby?”


The Legal Push

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo legalized commercial surrogacy in his state as part of his budget on April 3, amid the coronavirus pandemic. New York bishops condemned the bill as “a dangerous policy that will lead to the exploitation of poor, vulnerable women and has few safeguards for children.”

Lahl pointed out that Cuomo passed the bill late at night and as part of his larger budget and “took advantage, clearly, of the pandemic, especially facing the state of New York, which has been heavily hit, to pass a piece of legislation that he really, really wanted passed.”

Opponents of the New York legislation included prominent feminist Gloria Steinem, who wrote to New York lawmakers warning that, “under this bill, women in economic need become commercialized vessels for rent, and the fetuses they carry become the property of others.”

Now that New York has legalized the practice, Louisiana, Michigan and Nebraska are the only states that do not allow commercial surrogacy. There is a patchwork of surrogacy laws across the country, as some states do not address the practice and others such as California expressly allow it.

Lahl says that there have been aggressive efforts to legalize surrogacy from gay men who “want to be able to purchase eggs and pay women for their wombs in order to buy babies.”

In Washington state, the law’s author was state Sen. Jamie Pederson, D-Seattle, who with his same-sex partner purchased four children from a surrogate from California. In New York, the bill’s author, state Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, also traveled to California to acquire two children with his male partner through a surrogate. “New Yorkers can now stay in New York, rather than have to travel 3,000 miles, like my husband and I did,” Hoylman said regarding the legislation.


‘A Right to a Child’

Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie, a physician and policy adviser for The Catholic Association, commented to the Register that the rise of the surrogacy industry has led to the belief that people have “a right to a child.”

“When assisted reproductive technologies become mainstream, then you start to think of babies as something that not only can be produced on demand, but should be produced on demand; and then you start to talk about who has a right to a child,” she said.

Christie added that there was a “colonialist” aspect to the surrogacy industry, as the practice is “extremely expensive, and it’s much cheaper when you go to the developing nations to rent a uterus. There is an international market for wombs, for women’s bodies, and poor women are more affected.” Surrogacy can cost anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000.

Celebrities often employ surrogates, such as CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who recently announced that he had become a father through surrogacy of baby Wyatt. Currently single, he plans to “co-parent” with his former partner, nightclub owner Benjamin Maisani, because he wants the baby to have “two parents.”

Christie said that Cooper’s unnamed surrogate “was paid to give rise to a child that she has no legal connection to and can never claim.” Speaking as an adoptive mother of her daughter from China, Christie said that children who are separated from their birth parents “suffer these wounds that don’t really heal; you can talk and talk and talk, but the wound is there, because it’s a real separation with real consequences.”

In Cooper’s case, she added that if the egg donor was different from the surrogate carrying the child, which often occurs, then “there are so many people involved” with parental connections to the child.

She said, “This is really turning children into commodities, turning children into produced objects and turning gestation, pregnancy, childbirth into things you can buy, things you can rent, instead of beautiful experiences that bond couples and create families and memories and joy.”

Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.