KYIV, Ukraine — For weeks, more than 100 foreign genetic parents of babies born to surrogate mothers in Ukraine have been waiting nervously, prevented by Ukraine’s rigid coronavirus restrictions from entering the country to pick up their newborns.
But the government has been granting some exemptions, and on Wednesday, having gone through a mandatory two-week quarantine, 11 couples from Argentina and Spain were joyously united with their newest family members. It was a first step in whittling down a backlog of babies born into Ukraine’s surrogate motherhood industry during the pandemic that some officials have said could swell to as many as 1,000.
“It was like a dream,” Andrea Diez, a mother from Argentina, said Wednesday after she was handed her baby at a news conference hosted by a surrogacy agency, Biotexcom.
Biotexcom, which has faced criticism over the backlog, staged the event for maximum effect, bringing out the babies and uniting them with their joyful parents for the first time.
With permissive legislation, high-quality private maternity hospitals and an abundance of poor women, Ukraine has in recent years become the leading country providing surrogacy services to foreigners, industry executives and women’s rights advocates say.
For the most part, the surrogacy agencies care for most of the babies, though some have been left with the surrogate mothers. Biotexcom, the largest such agency, is caring for 79 babies in cribs in a hotel and clinic in Kyiv. The company is expecting two more births on Wednesday.
The baby pickup on Wednesday is a step toward unwinding the problem, one of the more bizarre to arise from travel restrictions imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
But the schedule for pickups so far is slower than the rate of births, so the stranded surrogate babies are still growing in number in Ukraine.
The authorities have estimated that 1,000 surrogate mothers are expecting. So far, 120 genetic parents of 125 babies have asked for assistance with travel, and 31 couples have arrived, including the 11 who met their babies on Wednesday, according to Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said in a statement that it had helped six American parents travel to Ukraine.
Ukraine is an outlier among nations, though not alone, in allowing foreigners access to a broad range of reproductive health services, including buying eggs and arranging for surrogate births for a fee. Ukrainian law grants custody to the genetic parents.
Ms. Diez and her husband, Fernando Montero, both 46, said they turned to Ukraine for a surrogate mother after years of failed fertility treatments in Argentina.
They named their son Ignacio (and nicknamed him Nacho). Born April 29, he spent the first month and a half of his life cared for by nurses in a room packed with cribs.
The baby pileup has revived criticism of the business in Ukraine.
Biotexcom has been criticized for sometimes impregnating surrogate mothers with three embryos, increasing the chances of a successful pregnancy but risking an abortion if all three develop.
“We do it for the result,” Albert Tochylovsky, the company director, said in an interview. “We work for the result.”
La Strada, a women’s rights group, said it received about 100 calls a year from surrogate mothers seeking help. In most cases, the women are upset about having to hand over the baby, said Maryna Lehenka, the group’s legal director, indicating “insufficient psychological support for women who go into surrogacy programs.”
Other surrogate mothers have expressed appreciation for the pay — around $15,000 per birth, if everything goes right — and the chance to help infertile couples. But some are upset by the total separation from the babies once they have given birth.
“It’s been five years since I gave birth to my twins, and I would be happy to receive a postcard to know how they are doing,” said Olha Korsunova, 27, who is now 12 weeks into her third surrogate pregnancy.
“The parents do not do that, and it is their right, I do not judge,” she said.
Ms. Korsunova decided to become a surrogate mother after the war in eastern Ukraine drove her from Donetsk, her hometown, and she needed money for medical school. She gave birth to her own son when she was 18 and at 21 gave birth to the twin boys, for parents from Spain.
“I received education and have a possibility to give my son all he needs thanks to the surrogacy programs,” Ms. Korsunova said. She is studying obstetrics.
Some surrogate mothers have been left caring for the babies themselves.
One woman living in Vinnytsia, in western Ukraine, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Dasha, to avoid repercussions from her agency, has been caring for a baby girl she gave birth to in April. She said she became a surrogate mother to pay her mortgage.
The baby, she said, cries constantly, and the agency that arranged the birth has provided little support. “It was very hard,” Dasha said in an interview. “I just want the parents to come and to take this girl away from me.”
Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.