“Sorry, Nash is cranky right now,” apologises Bec Kalpakoff, from Perth, while she calmly tends to a fussy infant in a busy café.
She is not flustered by being a first-time mother, but ordering a coffee is proving a frustration — Bec cannot speak the language in the city where her son was born.
She called the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv home for five months after a surrogate mother gave birth to her twins, Nash and Indi.
Bec is one of thousands of hopeful parents using Ukraine’s liberal surrogacy laws each year.
Conceiving a child through surrogacy in Ukraine with a donor egg costs between 30,000 to 40,000 euros, not including travel or legal costs.
Business is booming after other countries — including Thailand, Nepal and India — have cracked down on foreigners using local services.
But expense, bureaucracy and criticism from conservative politicians and the church have not stopped foreign couples, primarily from Spain, Britain and America, employing Ukrainian surrogates.
‘We’re not a baby factory’
Bec and her husband Mitch discovered surrogacy options in Ukraine through Facebook groups for couples struggling to conceive.
“We had to sacrifice for this, we aren’t loaded, we had to take out two personal loans,” she says.
Last December they flew to Ukraine where their eggs and sperm were harvested, resulting in five viable embryos. They chose a surrogate from a selection of three women presented to them by the New Hope Surrogacy Agency, one of roughly a dozen operating in Ukraine today.
Its director Julia Osiyevska is faced with an enviable business problem for a small, boutique company: she cannot keep up with customer demand.
“We normally handle about 20 couples a year. This past summer alone we had 25. It was too much, never again,” Julia says.
“The larger firms are all about profit. But that’s why I keep it small, we’re not a baby factory.”
The Kalpakoffs chose a woman called Anastasia, who received 14,000 euros, paid in instalments over nine months.
The amount surrogates earn is not set by law in Ukraine, but 13,000 to 15,000 euros is the reported standard at Kyiv’s surrogacy agencies.
All of Anastasia’s medical, food and transport costs were also covered by Bec and Mitchell, on top of her payment.
“The first meeting was awkward, we could only speak through a translator, but I brought her photos of my family to see,” Bec says.
Foreign couples are not legally obliged to meet their surrogates and some agencies discourage it, but all parties must sign a contract relinquishing parenthood to the paying couple, which can lead to some difficult ethical situations, Julia says.
“A surrogate has no say in an abortion. She has no rights,” she says.
Recently this clause was enforced, when a heart defect was discovered 17 weeks into the pregnancy of one of Julia’s surrogates.
‘The children are too young to understand’
On the outskirts of Kyiv, visitors to Biotexcom, Ukraine’s largest surrogacy agency, are met with high metal walls and a guardhouse and signs warning of dogs keep prying eyes away.
Inside, Maria waits patiently for an ultrasound, resting uncomfortably at eight months pregnant and busy writing on her mobile phone.
Maria is already the mother of two of her own children, which made her eligible for surrogacy.
“The children are too young to understand what I’m doing, my son thinks I’m getting fat,” Maria says.
At first she had intended to donate an egg, for 700 euros, but 15,000 euros in nine months was far more tempting.
“At first my husband was against it, but eventually he was convinced by the money.”
Like all married surrogates in Ukraine, Maria’s husband also had to sign a contract giving his consent to the process.
When asked what the money will help her achieve, Maria grows quiet and looks at her feet.
“It will help solve a lot of private problems.”
Women can work as a surrogate three times in Ukraine, earning roughly 45,000 euros over several years.
“Maybe I’d do it again, but let’s get through this one first,” says Maria.
Separation seen as best practice
Maria is one of roughly 150 young women applying each month to become surrogates at Biotexcom alone.
The screening process is rigorous, requiring a psychological analysis and a battery of physical tests, intended to protect both surrogates and client couples — and the company.
“We are responsible for the birth of an average of 100 babies every month,” says Anastasia Aleksandrova, senior manager of Biotexcom’s English department.
Started in 2004, Biotexcom boasts 200 staff with five fulltime doctors, and caters to languages including Chinese, Italian, German and Spanish. Its annual turnover is about 30 million euros.
For the 49,000 euro “VIP Package”, couples are supplied with an apartment in Kyiv, a private maid, grocery deliveries, 24-hour on-call assistance and even a babysitter for any existing children.
Biotexcom generally keeps surrogates apart from the couples. Even the design of in-house medical facilities reflects this policy, with the ability to keep clients and surrogates separated at all times.
“This process can break a woman if she’s too emotional,” Anastasia says.
“And no matter how strong, surrogates are always in a delicate state right after they give birth. So it’s better to have that distance from the couple and the child.”
After a long morning of travel and tests, Maria sitsback on the waiting room sofa with a loud sigh.
“I’m so tired from this, I just want to give birth,” she says.
“Yes, it must be physically exhausting now at eight months,” remarks a staff member.
“No,” replies Maria flatly, “I’m tired morally.”
At this point Biotexcom insisted it was time to let Maria rest and move on to see other facilities.
A bureaucratic battle back to Australia
Bec Kalpakoff says that she has never struggled with the decision to use a Ukrainian surrogate.
“Back home the girls at work and even my 90-year-old gran said go for it. They were more concerned about the war in eastern Ukraine, not the ethics of it,” she says.
“It’s the current Australian laws and local IVF costs that force couples to go oversees for surrogates, it’s our own system.”
Bec also insisted on having contact with her surrogate Anastasia and was supported by the agency with regular translations and Skype calls.
“I would ask her about the babies, but always told her that we worry about you just as much.
“When the twins were born, I offered to have Anastasia hold them, but she didn’t want to. But she did ask for health updates and brought them gifts.”
The next struggle was getting them home.
“I’ve had to prepare 23 different documents, sometimes three times, then submit them all again because the embassy refuses to accept digital documents over five megabytes, then attend several passport interviews and also submit a DNA test.”
Once the DNA tests are analysed, the twins can secure “citizenship by descent” in the eyes of the Australian Government.
But on top of bureaucratic hurdles, there is the personal stigma Bec encountered when dealing with the Australian embassy staff.
“I felt I was being questioned by the morality police,” she says.
The Embassy in Kyiv declined to comment about Australians using surrogacy in Ukraine.
But a spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs confirmed the number of Australian children born through Ukrainian surrogates has tripled this year, jumping from nine children in 2017 to 26 children in 2018.
The spokesperson stressed that Australians considering international surrogacy should “seek independent legal advice” due to the legal and social issues, particularly in poorly regulated countries.
Nearly five months after their birth, Bec was able to leave Kyiv with Nash and Indi, arriving in Perth in the middle of November.
Politicians fighting for ‘God’s wish’
Oksana Bilozir is one of a dozen prominent MPs in a so-called “parliamentary prayer group” trying to curb, if not outright outlaw, foreigners paying for the use of Ukrainian wombs.
The conservative member of the Ukrainian Parliament is blunt while sitting at her desk surrounded by military badges, crosses and Orthodox icons.
“We can’t be shown as an incubator for foreigners. The church is against it here, just like in all countries,” she says.
“Ukraine is a Christian country and God never opened his hands to surrogacy.”
She has five bills against surrogacy in the works that seek to strictly define who is a foreigner and then limit surrogacy to Ukrainian residents, not couples visiting or renting an apartment temporarily.
Ms Bilozir prefers a complete ban, but she concedes that surrogacy now has such significant economic value in Ukraine that it may be beyond outlawing entirely.
“Our social healthcare system is a legacy of the Soviet Union, but surrogacy was written into our laws purely as a business,” she says.
“Really it’s now a big fight with business and their lobbyists who are unfortunately present in the Parliament.”
And she acknowledges that same money is tempting to young Ukrainian women in dire straights.
“Put simply, there are two categories of Ukrainian surrogates, those wanting to do it for the money and those who already have,” Ms Bilozir says.
“But ask one of those girls how she feels with a baby inside her.”