As many as 1,000 babies born to surrogate mothers in Russia for foreign families have been left stranded in the country by the coronavirus pandemic and closure of international borders, the Guardian has been told.
The babies, some born as far back as February, are being cared for mainly by hired caregivers in rented apartments in Moscow, St Petersburg, and other Russian cities.
Border closures have put additional strain on surrogate mothers, who usually give the babies to their biological parents within days of birth. Some surrogates are now being asked to provide additional care in the interim.
Parents are desperate to get to their children and avoid being potentially cut off from them, as a controversial criminal investigation against doctors spreads fear in the surrogacy industry, which is legal in Russia.
“This is an urgent problem,” said Irina Kirkora, the deputy head of the Kremlin’s advisory council on human rights.
Kirkora estimated that as many as 1,000 births to foreign parents may have occurred since February, based on a tallying of clinics in Russia catering to international surrogacy. An employee of a company in St Petersburg that provides surrogacy services estimated that the number was at least 600.
“These are children that are growing up every day. They need their parents,” said Kirkora.
Paid surrogacy is only allowed in a few countries around the world, including Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and some states in the US. The discovery of dozens of stranded babies at a Ukrainian surrogate company in May drew attention to how Covid-19 had disrupted the industry.
James and Ling*, a British-Chinese couple from Shanghai, are expecting a baby girl in the next few days. The surrogate has already been admitted to hospital in Moscow.
For the couple, the bureaucratic struggle to arrive in time for their daughter’s birth caps years of effort to have a child, from unsuccessful attempts to conceive, to infertility treatment, then medical screenings for surrogacy, two trips to Moscow to provide sperm and eggs for in vitro fertilisation, and then several failed implantations in a surrogate mother’s womb before a successful pregnancy was achieved late last year.
Now they are faced with a closed border and often contradictory information about how to get in to Russia.
“We are trying to be adult about it,” said Ling, who along with her husband has approached Russian, Chinese, and UK officials to try to get a Russian entry visa. “But we have been patient for so many months. It is time for us to go full speed.”
Ling said that because she and her husband faced infertility problems after 35, they decided that surrogacy was “a very good solution for us, if we approach it in the right way”.
They’ve collected medical records and news clippings to chart their daughter’s development – and their diplomatic battle to reach her – to show her when she is older. “We want to provide our daughter a history she is proud of. That’s our philosophy,” said Ling.
They are soon to join an estimated 180 families in China who have had children born to surrogates in Russia since February. Other families are in Singapore, France, the Philippines, Argentina and Australia, said Kirkora.
In a Chinese WeChat group with 150 members, other families have expressed pain and shame at missing the first months of their children’s lives.
In video testimonials seen by the Guardian, families wearing masks pleaded for Russian officials to grant them special visas. They described painful histories of infertility and lost pregnancies, and bouts of depression from being unable to reach their children born in recent months.
“Missing our child has been torturing us,” said one. “Because of this epidemic, my child is now born, but I cannot meet my child,” said another.
Russia is not currently issuing visas to Chinese citizens. The Russian foreign ministry has been approached for comment.
Gestational surrogacy, where the birth mother does not share any biological material with the child, is legal in Russia, but the practice is controversial. Its critics say it commercialises the birth process and can lead to the exploitation of surrogate mothers, including in cases where the pregnancy is lost.
Chinese families going through an agent (James and Ling did not) will often pay £60,000 to an agency before factoring in flights and other costs. Prices paid to surrogate mothers, who are often from poorer Russian regions, start at approximately £11,500.
The pandemic has also meant that surrogate mothers have been approached for extras, like in-hospital care, that they hadn’t anticipated. A surrogate mother who gave birth in May said that the absence of the family had complicated the process emotionally. “You feel like you’re giving away the child,” she said. She was asked to stay on to help provide childcare but declined and the child was put in the care of a nanny.
Advocates for reuniting the families said reforming the industry was important but that the coronavirus pandemic should not prevent biological parents from coming to Russia to collect their children.
“You can’t slow down a pregnancy, not with coronavirus or by any other bans. This process is going forward,” said Kirkora.
She wants Russia to accept genetic tests as a basis for issuing visas to biological parents but said that would take time to organise.
“There is a pressing issue in the transparency of the surrogacy industry,” said Ling. “Most unfortunately it is happening around the time when my baby is supposed to be born.”
The situation has been complicated by the arrest on human trafficking charges of four doctors and four other employees – including a courier and a translator – from two fertility clinics that work with surrogate pregnancies.
The cases relate to two incidents: the death of a child born to a surrogate from sudden infant death syndrome in January, and the discovery in an apartment in June of five children cared for by two Chinese nannies.
The arrests have spread fear through the industry. Doctors have reportedly declined to treat surrogate mothers for fear of legal liability.
Kirkora said that translators had refused to work at a recent forum on how to provide help to biological parents stuck outside the country. Several clinics and companies that provide surrogacy services cited the recent arrests when declining to speak for this article.
“I’m worried like everyone that it’s going to touch my clients too,” said Inessa Matovich, the director of a Moscow company that provides surrogacy services mainly to families in Russia. “The world has gone crazy and the smallest, most defenceless beings have been hit. And they’re without their parents.”
* Names have been changed