A cry from the heart: Surrogacy scandals in Ukraine

by Dr. Renate Klein, FINRRAGE and ABSA (Australia)

On 20 August 2019, Australian journalist Samantha Hawley’s exposé of the dirty surrogacy business in Ukraine aired on Foreign Correspondent on ABC television as ‘Damaged babies and broken hearts’ (written overview, see full video here or below). Samantha Hawley was the courageous journalist who broke the news about Baby Gammy who was left behind with his mother in Thailand in 2014 because he had Down syndrome and his commissioning Australian parents only took Gammy’s able-bodied twin sister home. (The father was later revealed to be a convicted pedophile.)

Hawley does it again with her report on surrogacy in Ukraine which is both heartbreaking and infuriating.

Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Eastern Europe and still suffering from the ongoing Russian Military Intervention that begun in 2014. Commercial surrogacy is allowed only for heterosexual couples who are medically infertile. However, there is no regulation. It follows that women who are hired as so-called surrogate mothers (a misnomer) by Ukrainian agencies have zero ‘choice’ or rights and become pawns in the hands of unscrupulous agencies such as BioTexCom. Often, they are war refugees who cannot return to their homes. And they have no jobs.

Hawley reports how she finds 3-year-old Bridget who is severely disabled but improving with treatment in the Children’s Sonechko Home at the edge of an industrial city. Bridget, also called ‘Brizzy’ by her doting nurse Marina Boyko who has looked after her since her birth, is there because her commissioning parents, Matthew Scott Etnyre and Irmgard Pagan who live in California, abandoned her after she was born prematurely and very ill, supposedly with brain damage. In fact, they sent a legal letter asking the hospital to switch off Bridget’s life support, as they deemed her ‘in a vegetative state’ and incurable: ‘”We will not take her to America”.

Three years later, Brizzy can see and hear, knows a few words, smiles, eats, and, as former nurse Marina believes, with the right physical therapy she will one day be able to walk by herself (she was born at 25 weeks, weighing just 850 grams). Marina says that for her, she is the most beautiful, most joyous child. But the parents still do not want her. This makes the girl stateless. She now lives in a children’s home and if no family is found to permanently look after her, at age 7, she will lose access to any therapies. At age 18 she will be sent to an old people’s home.

Foreign Correspondent requested an interview with the head of BioTexCom, Albert Tochilovsky. To Australian viewers, BioTexCom is already known through their appearances at Sam Everingham’s 2017 Families Through Surrogacy’s conferences held in London and Dublin after which BioTexCom commented that they gained many new clients and contacts. Described as “one of the best clinics not only in Ukraine but all over the world,” what was not said was that BioTexCom is not even registered in Ukraine, but in the Seychelles. This was revealed in Hawley’s report when a lawyer in Ukraine tried to help commissioning parents with their contract, but was unable to do so as Ukrainian law does not apply to a foreign-registered company.

Samantha Hawley also notes that Tochilovsky “was briefly placed under house arrest amidst allegations of child-trafficking, document forgery and tax avoidance” in May 2018. To date, no proceedings have been brought.

Tochilovsky insists that BioTexCom never had a client called Etnyre and that he has no responsibility for Bridget. He suggests that a rival agency has pretended to be BioTexCom, trying to blame his company. However, he concedes that other babies with brain damage have been born.

The children’s Ombudsman, Nikolai Kuleba, appointed by Ukraine’s President, is aware of Bridget’s story. He also suggests that Bridget’s American parents engaged in a second surrogacy arrangement which resulted in the birth of another set of twins (Bridget also had a twin brother who died). Kuleba reveals that Bridget is not the only child left behind. He knows of at least ten other babies that have been abandoned in Ukraine by their foreign parents. As he puts it: “This is an immoral business, it does harm.”

silhouette of baby over map of Ukraine

Hawley tracks down a ‘surrogate’ mother who was recruited by BioTexCom. She and her husband are war refugees and live in a border town. Thy have no income and the money from surrogacy is hard to resist. Their home was destroyed and they cannot go back. The woman wants to remain anonymous, fearing recrimination from BioTexCom. Her first pregnancy was for a Spanish couple. Three embryos were implanted but later one fetus was ‘eliminated’ through fetal reduction. Five months into the pregnancy, bleeding starts and she has to undergo an emergency cesarian. The babies die. She is left to dispose of them by herself. Eventually she gets $250. Still desperate for money, she begins another surrogacy for a British couple who also features in Foreign Correspondent. Again three embryos are implanted, two later aborted by fetal reduction. The commissioning couple were not informed of any of this. Bleeding started again at 25 weeks and another emergency cesarian was performed. Baby Michael spent 14 weeks in a public hospital which is shown in the documentary as a filthy place. Michael, who is now in the UK with his commissioning parents, also has developmental problems. When asked by Hawley how she was treated, the ‘surrogate’ responded that for the agency, “they are just incubators … they don’t treat you like human beings, they show no understanding.”

Hawley’s story is an absolute indictment of commercial surrogacy in Ukraine. After an outcry in Australia, a #GoFundMe website for little Bridget has been established. After two days close to $5000 have been donated. Hopefully, the money raised will secure ongoing therapy for Bridget and she will find a permanent home in the same way that donated money allows Gammy in Thailand to live with his mother Pattharamon Chanbua.

A day later, on 21 August, Tracy Bowden teamed up with Foreign Correspondent to follow up the dirty Ukrainian surrogacy business with another story on ABC-TV’s 7.30 Report called ‘Australian parents warn reality of Ukrainian surrogacy doesn’t always match the dream’ (also covered in the Wednesday 21/8/2019 broadcast of 7.30 on iView). This time two Australian couples complain about the substandard treatment they received from the Lotus Agency in Ukraine (which is registered in Israel, not Ukraine). It cost them $110,000 and $140,000 dollars respectively and one couple remembers how Lotus asked for more and more money when their twins were born prematurely with bleeding on the brain. The 7.30 Report also talked to a former employee of Lotus who left because of the inhuman ways ‘surrogate’ mothers were dealt with: “A surrogate mother who was 24 weeks’ pregnant started saying she wasn’t feeling very well. … Doctors said treatment would be expensive … the Israeli bosses (Lotus) said they would not treat her. She had to have an emergency birth because of infection. If we had provided assistance when she said she wasn’t well, we could have saved the babies.”

Both Australian couples had opted to use Lotus in Kiev, Ukraine after following Sam Everingham’s advice provided in seminars run by Families Through Surrogacy (now renamed Growing Families). Everingham concedes that his business invites speakers from Ukraine and promotes their ‘educational talk’ on its website for which he gets paid. The 7.30 Report revealed that ASIC figures show that “in the past 5 years, Mr Everingham’s company earnt $2 million in revenue.” Asked on camera about these damning surrogacy stories in Ukraine, Everingham defends his advice stating, “they [the couples] have to take responsibility for their decision.” The families say they are not so sure. Also asked by Tracy Bowden if his company is assisting people to do something that is illegal in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory (where it is a criminal act to engage in international surrogacy) Everingham responds, “We don’t believe those laws are right.” This is an outrageous statement to make and we hope that action will finally be taken against Everingham and his company, such as prohibiting them to run seminars on international surrogacy in states where going overseas is punishable by jail terms or fines over $100,000.

We have asked for such actions to be taken for years (see Renate Klein’s 2017 book Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation). No doubt Sam Everingham will now push even harder for surrogacy in Australia, including commercial surrogacy which is illegal.

In response, members of Abolish Surrogacy (Australia) – ABSA – point out that we need to reduce demand for surrogacy which, even if it is done ‘for love’ is deeply harmful and exploitative for the women involved as ‘surrogates’ and egg ‘donors’. Furthermore, no child has ever asked to become a take-away baby (see Odette’s and Rob’s stories in ‘Broken Bonds’).

Brave stories from the ugly surrogacy world by Hawley and Bowden will help. Perhaps Ukraine will follow Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia and India and ban commercial surrogacy. But we do not underestimate the money that is made by ‘#Big Fertility. It’s all about the money.’ Yes, involuntary childlessness can be very painful, but inflicting pain on so many others is deeply unethical and indefensible. Little Bridget will stay in our hearts.

Dr. Renate Klein, FINRRAGE and ABSA (Australia)

Graphics by Vecteezy