A year later, the babies are in Romania, Spain, Italy and elsewhere. Pechenoha is dressed in civilian clothes as he meets a journalist at the BioTexCom clinic. "We resumed the programs in May of last year, so we have only delivered seven babies so far. This year, we want to start recovering the figures from before the war: about 450 babies," says Pechenoha.
"We do not have enough women here, and we cannot bring them regularly for medical monitoring because since the war began, there are no flights to Ukraine," he continues. "We have more demand than ever, because until last year, many people knew nothing about Ukraine, and thought we were a third-world country," he says.
Growing demand for surrogate mothers
The BioTexCom clinic consists of three mansion-style chalets located on a hill on the outskirts of Kyiv. During the first weeks of the invasion, the front line was only a few kilometers away, so the medical facilities were fortified. Pregnant women lived alongside more than 100 soldiers, prepared to fight at any moment. Meanwhile, near the towns of Bucha and Irpin, Russian troops committed crimes against humanity: torture, mutilation, rape and execution.
In those days, the Ukrainian government, desperate for military support from the EU and U.S., tried to turn trapped surrogacy babies into another way to generate international solidarity. Dozens of international journalists visited BioTexCom's facilities, recorded the infants and interviewed their caregivers and Pechenoha. Back then, he was tired of spending much of his time doing interviews.
No one forces these women to do it. They do it freely, and with informed consent.
Now, asked how he feels after a year of war, he replies that he is tired, but for a different reason: he has mostly been living in the clinic because his apartment is located on the 28th floor, and the frequent power outages that still affect parts of Kyiv make it inadvisable to take the elevator.
Asked if BioTexCom might look into finding women from other countries to meet demand, he doesn't hesitate: "Of course. We've already done it with two women. It's not forbidden." He responds with a "Next question" when asked about the nationality of those two women, adding with a smile that he cannot share the information for ethical reasons.
A photograph of the clinic's medical team taken in 2014. Before the war, Ukraine was one of the most important centers for gestational surrogacy.
Surrogacy banned in many other European countries
"We are looking for women in the former Soviet republics because, logically, they have to be from poorer places than our clients. I have not met a single woman with a good economic situation who has decided to go through this process out of kindness, because she thinks she has enough children and wants to help someone else who wants them," he says.
"They do it because they need the money to buy a house, for their children's education. If you have a good life in Europe, you're not going to do it."
Before the war, Ukraine was one of the most important centers for gestational surrogacy, after Thailand, India and Nepal banned the practice due to reports of exploitation in so-called "women's farms." It is still legal in other former Soviet republics such as Belarus, Georgia and Kazakhstan, as well as in numerous states in the U.S.
Pechenoha says he doesn't understand why the business is prohibited in much of the world. "No one forces these women to do it. They do it freely, and with informed consent. And we don't give babies to women who don't have them themselves because, for example, they don't want to ruin their bodies or things like that. We only give them to those couples made up of a man and a woman, married, who prove that they can't have children. We don't do it, like other countries, for homosexual couples. So I don't understand what the problem is," he says.
Being psychologically prepared
About 20 pregnant women wait for their check-up sitting on large leatherette sofas. The building is divided by stairs made of white marble. The design calls to mind the cleanliness and modernity of an operating room. Some mothers are accompanied by their young children. When they reach the 32nd week of gestation, they are transferred to apartments in Kiev, where they live until they give birth.
If they put someone else's (genetic) material inside you, the body is yours, and so are the emotions.
Olga is 40 years old. This is the second time she'll have a baby in exchange for money. She does it to support the three children she lives with, aged between 11 and 18. With the €16,000 she received for the first pregnancy, she bought an apartment. With the fee she receives for the second one, she will sell the apartment and buy a house. She works as an assistant in a school for €160 per month, the minimum wage in Ukraine. Her husband repairs gas installations for €380 per month. Olga does not rule out gestating a baby for another family in the future.
"I do it to help those families with their need to have a child, and for them to help me with my economic needs," she says timidly. She does not want to be photographed. Her eldest daughter, 18, is the only one in the family objects to her job: "She wants to protect me. It's normal. But I'm fine; you just need to be psychologically prepared."
Inside of one BioTexCom's maternity hospitals which has been upgraded with new equipment for women to give birth with conditions close to a birth at home.
Would EU membership make surrogacy illegal in Ukraine?
Ihor Pechenoha returns to the consulting room to continue. "When you set up a private clinic, it's to make money. But for me, as a doctor, my satisfaction is not that, but to hand the baby over to the arms of a couple who wants it so much," he says, before confirming that he does not attend the births.
Surrogacy is banned in many EU countries. Asked whether he believes Ukraine eventually joining the EU could affect the country's surrogacy laws, he responds: "No alliance can force a country to change its laws. Ukraine will not give up these programs."
Ihor talks about programs; Olga, the mother, about plans. The surrogacy clinic uses bureaucratic language, intended to medicalize the process. But in the end, listening to the mothers allows reality to emerge: "A friend did it first. I was afraid. It seemed strange to me, as with everything that is new. You have to deeply accept what you are going to experience. The first time was very hard because, even if they put someone else's (genetic) material inside you, the body is yours, and so are the emotions."
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