As the weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic march on, evidence of a catastrophic failure of international commercial surrogacy is accumulating. A pillar of industry practice is handing over the baby to the commissioning parents (or parent) as soon as possible after the birth.

Because of the coronavirus, borders have closed, shutting parents out and babies in. It is likely that travel and quarantine restrictions will not lift for months.

As the interval between birth and hand-over lengthens, the chances of serious mishaps grow. The birth mother might grow attached to the child and refuse to hand him over. If the mother refuses to care for him, the helpless infant might be handed over to an abusive carer. Disputes could flare up about responsibility for the costs of care. The child’s murky legal status could lead to problems. Medical problems might go unresolved. The commissioning parents might lose interest.

Apart from all the ethical considerations of surrogacy, these hapless babies are being denied rights guaranteed under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: “to be registered immediately after birth and … have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.”

It has been widely reported that more than a hundred of these cases exist in Ukraine and at least 40 in Georgia.

Last week the Guardian reported that there are up to 1000 of these babies in Russia, some born as long ago as February. They are being cared for by nannies in rented flats in Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities.

“This is an urgent problem,” said Irina Kirkora, of the Kremlin’s advisory council on human rights. After surveying Russian surrogacy agencies, she estimates that as many as 1000 children may have already been born. “These are children that are growing up every day. They need their parents,” she told The Guardian. “You can’t slow down a pregnancy, not with coronavirus or by any other bans.” 

Many of the children – at least 180, according to The Guardian – were commissioned by couples in China, where surrogacy is illegal. But Russia is not issuing visas to Chinese citizens.

One need not be very imaginative to picture the potential for trouble when a baby is born without parents. Many of the Russian surrogates do not want to care for these babies, so the agencies are being forced to find “nannies” – about whom The Guardian’s reporter says almost nothing. Have they been able to find nannies for all of the babies? Will all of the parents eventually show up?

Although surrogacy is legal in Russia, it is not looked upon favourably by the authorities. Four doctors and four other employees – including a courier and a translator – have already been arrested on child trafficking charges over two incidents. In January one child died of sudden infant death syndrome; in June, five children were discovered in an apartment being cared for by two Chinese women. “The arrests have spread fear through the industry,” The Guardian says. “Doctors have reportedly declined to treat surrogate mothers for fear of legal liability.”

And Russia is not the only country with parent-less babies. The United States is a popular surrogacy destination and an unknown number are stranded there as well. According to the Chicago Tribune, there are between 200 and 400 of these babies in the US. The babies are being cared for by surrogates, agency employees, nannies, family friends and relatives.

These are just snapshots of what is happening in a couple of countries, based on interviews with industry representatives, who have every reason to minimize problems. But international agencies also recruit mothers in countries like Kenya, Colombia, Guatemala, Belarus, Cyprus, Greece, Albania, Portugal, and Nigeria. Although there are no accurate figures, surrogacy is estimated to be a US$20 billion industry; with so many players in so many jurisdictions, the potential for things going pear-shaped is immense.

As we have noted before on MercatorNet, this was not a black swan event, a terrible, unforeseeable accident.

In countries like Ukraine, Georgia, Guatemala, or Russia, unforeseen national disasters happen regularly. But the clinics and agencies ignored the risks. Covid-19 is a relatively minor disruption. But it has exposed the dark corners of an industry in which commissioning parents and profit-hungry middlemen play dice with children’s lives and their happiness.

Sympathetic media reports portray surrogacy as the fulfilment of infertile parents’ dreams. This crisis strips away the bright colours to expose it for what it is: child trafficking. Commercial surrogacy should be banned.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet