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Ukraine Hopes These Surrogate Babies Will Stir The Conscience Of The West

BioTexCom is responsible for more than half of the 2,500 surrogate babies born annually in Ukraine. This is how, in the middle of the war, the surrogacy company continues to function.

Surrogate babies stranded in the basement of a building in Ukraine.​

Surrogate babies stranded in the basement of a building in Ukraine.

Patricia Simón

KYIV — With his right hand, he moves the forceps, emulating how embryos are inserted into a woman's uterus. On the left, he holds the walkie-talkie used to communicate with the soldiers monitoring the surroundings of the clinic.

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Dr. Ihor Pechenoga, with three medical specialties, has been working since 2018 as a spokesperson for the surrogacy company BioTexCom, which is responsible for more than half of the 2,500 babies born annually in Ukraine through this procedure. When the Russian invasion began on February 24, he was appointed with the responsibility of protecting the clinic, located very close to the Kyiv front line.

“We are hosting a couple who have been fleeing the bombings with their two children and their two cats. She is 32 weeks pregnant and when the window panes were broken the other day by shelling I asked her how she was. She told me that she was very well, which was annoying," he laughs, perhaps without being aware of the intense opposition to what company calls “surrogate motherhood” among European human rights organizations.

Pictures of newborns

He is exhausted because, for days now, he has been tirelessly dedicated to showing journalists from all over the planet the shelter that BioTexCom has set up for the thirty babies that could not be delivered to their clients. It is part of the planned campaign of the Government of Ukraine, which knows that the picture of newborns being cared for by strangers in a bunker quickly ignites the most viral feeling there is: indignation.

Nobody knows when babies will be able to be picked up by the foreign couples.

Armed with an AK-47 and dressed in a military uniform, he accompanies this journalist to the basement of the building. In the first room, a table full of food, cereal and sweets is surrounded by five women with babies in their arms and another soldier armed with an automatic rifle. In the next one, some thirty-odd cribs and carry-cots harboring the babies that BioTexCom brought in after a bombardment reached the surroundings of a maternity and pediatric hospital in the first days of the war.

Nobody knows when they will be able to be picked up by the foreign couples who will register the babies in their names — and in their countries.

The Ukrainian government requires that couples must be heterosexual, married and demonstrate a health problem to have children of their own in order to contract these surrogacy companies. But, as documented by Verdys, a Ukrainian team of lawyers specialized in assisted reproduction and surrogacy, the lack of regulation in the country means that more than half of the pregnancies through this system are carried out illegally.

A lucrative business

Although the eight nurses have learned to rock several cribs at once, there is always a crying baby. One of the nurses striving to calm them down is Antonina Efimovich, who left her two daughters in Ovruch for a salary that triples what she would receive from working in a public hospital: 1,000 euros with which, she emphasizes, she can help her family progress. “I have been taking care of them and sleeping with them since they hired me on February 23. Of course, we grow fond of them, they are like our children,” explains Efimovich, who has suddenly found that talking to the press is included in her tasks.

But what keeps Efimovich up at night these days is the fate of her family, who have been trapped by the bombings in Ovruch, her hometown. Dr. Pechenoga promises her one of the thousands of Kyiv apartments that have been left empty after the mass exodus from the Ukrainian capital.

Outside the basement, the sound of shelling crashes through the walls of the building . A column of smoke is visible behind the buildings. And the doctor insists that they are preparing the logistics to send the babies to the Polish border or to the Ukrainian city Lviv, where they will be picked up by their clients.

The embryos are ready

On November 25, 2021, the BioTexCom clinic published an advertisement on its social media promoting a 3% discount for different services with the slogan: “Make your dream of having a baby come true." Criticism of the company intensified, but the mere existence of the advertisement shows how naturalized this multimillion-dollar business — with human beings as its product — remains for part of Ukrainian society.

“It is the second time that I am pregnant by surrogacy. I'll do it a third and last time, I think. This way I will be able to give my two daughters good living conditions,” explains Olesya, a 41-year-old woman from Dnipro who worked in a metallurgical factory until she approached BioTexcom. She is a single mother and says her sister and mother support her in this decision. According to Olesya, she receives about 16,000 euros for each baby delivered. The couples that will keep the newborn pay between 39,900 and 64,900 euros, depending on whether they choose one, several or indefinite attempts at fertilization.

According to several international media reports, cases have been documented in which the clauses of the surrogacy contract demand certain requirements from pregnant women, such as not drinking coffee or using hair dyes. And this is by legal means; there are numerous advertisements on Facebook pages in which lower amounts of cash are offered for an agreement directly between the contracting couple and the contracted mother. They even include the compensation that the pregnant woman would receive if she required hospitalization, an abortion or if she suffered other medical consequences. Here's an example of these posts:

“We are looking for a mother to gestate twins. The embryos are ready. Not older than 35 years. Payment terms: 14,000 for the program; monthly payment, 300 euros; for clothes, 300 euros; embryo transfer, 300 euros. Risks and compensations:

- If a cesarean section is required: 1,000 euros.

- If abortion is required: 80 euros per week of pregnancy.

- Loss of the uterus: 3,000 euros.

Write me on Viber if you are interested.”

The war has exposed the economic structure of Ukraine in which — as in other former Soviet republics — the most neoliberal practices and policies have taken roots, such as the surrogacy industry, the use of cryptocurrencies, the export of women for trafficking and sexual exploitation, or an endemic corruption that cuts across all facets of the country's public and private life.

Choosing the appearance of the birth mother

Olesya explains that the company has moved her to an apartment in Kyiv to keep her safe from the bombs falling on her region. Now she lives alone, but during her first surrogate pregnancy she shared a flat with four or five women in the same condition. Cases have been reported where women in these situations were forced to share a bed, in which they were humiliated when they required medical attention or in which their movement was restricted.

“Up to 200 candidates to be egg donors are examined daily and only 20% meet all the requirements in terms of physical and psychological health, age, having at least one child of their own and, of course, physical traits. The main advantage of our database is that you yourself can choose your donor based on her photo, video and 3D image," promises BioTexCom on its website.

By chance, the journalist of this article took a train trip where they met a couple from Spain who had decided to travel to Ukraine on their own to pick up a baby who had been born eight days earlier. The birth mother traveled with her husband and her other two children to Lviv to deliver the baby to those who had given their embryo. But unlike this Spanish couple, there are not many known cases of future parents willing to take the risk of entering a country at war.

A country at war

Ukraine had already been in a similar situation in March 2020, after almost all international airports were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic . According to official sources, the babies were picked up by their adoptive families months later, when the parents were able to travel to the country.

There are not many known cases of future parents willing to take the risk of entering a country at war.

“When you give birth, you have no contact with the baby , they take it away immediately. So I haven't had any problems with depression or sadness after having the baby. I take it as a matter of work, nothing more," states Olesya, showing surprise at the question. Now, she says, she just wants it to be time to give birth to this new baby so she can get back to her daughters.

While we finish the interview, Dr Pechenoga talks to other foreign journalists. On the nearest avenue, a bright sign in the colors of the Ukrainian flag displays a petition, "Close the sky," referencing the Zelensky government's request to NATO to approve a no-fly zone.

After a month of war, Ukrainian institutions are aware that the Russian invasion has dropped a level on international media and that interest is beginning to deflate. So at the same time the government creates more and more bureaucratic obstacles for journalists to access the scene of the events, they strive to show — in a controlled manner — the ravages that, in their point of view, will mobilize more indignation from the West.

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How WeChat Is Helping Bhutan's Disappearing Languages Find A New Voice

Phd candidate Tashi Dema, from the University of New England, discusses how social media apps, particularly WeChat, are helping to preserve local Bhutanese languages without a written alphabet. Dema argues that preservation of these languages has far-reaching benefits for the small Himalayan country's rich culture and tradition.

Monk performing while a sillouheted monk is on their phone

Source: Caterina Sanders/ Unsplash
Tashi Dema

THIMPHU — Dechen, 40, grew up in Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan . Her native language was Mangdip, also known as Nyenkha, as her parents are originally from central Bhutan. She went to schools in the city, where the curriculum was predominantly taught in Dzongkha, the national language, and English.

In Dechen’s house, everyone spoke Dzongkha. She only spoke her mother tongue when she had guests from her village, who could not understand Dzongkha and during her occasional visits to her village nestled in the mountains. Her mother tongue knowledge was limited.

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However, things have now changed.

With 90% of Bhutanese people using social media and social media penetrating all remotes areas in Bhutan , Dechen’s relatives in remote villages are connected on WeChat.

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