Global crises create surrogate shortage


Graphic illustration by Nicole Ge

The global surrogacy industry is facing an unprecedented shortage of surrogate mothers.

Tanika Anbu and Anushka Anand

From the scare of new COVID-19 variants to vaccine reluctance, prospective parents and surrogate mothers have faced a variety of new issues amid the pandemic. Exacerbated even further by the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, the global surrogacy industry is facing an unprecedented shortage of surrogate mothers. Amid the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, surrogate mothers must adhere to certain protocols, such as receiving vaccines and staying away from large crowds, which has compounded struggles. 

After the U.S., Ukraine is the second most popular destination for foreign couples seeking surrogacy, largely due to its cheap services. While surrogacy in the U.S. has a price tag above $100,000, Ukrainian equivalents are marketed at roughly $30,000 to $50,000.

An estimated 2,000 to 2,500 children are born through surrogacy in Ukraine each year, and at least 1,500 couples living in the U.S., U.K., Ireland and Australia are currently using Ukrainian surrogates, with their embryos stored in Ukrainian clinics. 

The war in Ukraine has inhibited international travel, impeding the country’s surrogacy process. A majority of fertility clinics in Ukraine are located in Kyiv, which is currently being targeted by Russian troops. Some clinics in the neighboring Georgia are preparing to transfer embryos from Ukraine to their facilities, but they face difficulties — they rely on commercial flights to transfer the embryos, which has faced increasing cancellations due to the war. 

“I know an expectant mother who had to take five flights over the course of a week just to get into the country where her carrier was,” said English teacher Erin Levin, who personally used a surrogate.

You want to be with your child, so you’re constantly adjusting, accepting and adapting.

— Erin Levin, English teacher

Prior to the war, the COVID-19 pandemic played the largest part in creating the surrogate shortage. Research shows serious consequences for women who have or had COVID-19, such as increased risk of premature or still-birth. Since many intended parents feared their surrogate mother could contract the virus, they have required surrogate mothers to get vaccinated, test frequently or stay away from large gatherings. Pregnancy itself naturally presents hazards to both the mother and child, but increasingly serious consequences associated with contracting COVID-19 as a pregnant woman has scared more surrogate mothers out of the industry, furthering the surrogacy shortage.

Furthermore, some surrogate mothers may refuse to follow these nuanced protocols. Unable to accept certain guidelines in their surrogate contracts, many mothers have left the business as they either don’t want to get vaccinated or don’t wish to avoid gatherings.

The pandemic has also caused a backlog in the international surrogacy markets. With numerous lockdowns and travel restrictions, intended parents and surrogate mothers in different countries faced a new wave of challenges, such as delayed egg retrievals and embryo transfers. Due to these unpredictable processes, many surrogate mothers now opt out of international surrogacy jobs to maintain easy access to the intended family, who often also desire a surrogate in close proximity to eliminate the complications of international travel. However, this is not a viable option for those hoping to take advantage of competitive costs internationally. 

“Especially with a pandemic it definitely seems hard for surrogates and intended parents to coordinate given all the travel restrictions and new variants,” junior Sravya Vakkalanka said. 

Even in the case of successful surrogate pregnancies, there are often complications. Travel restrictions and commercial flight cancellations can prevent intended parents from uniting with their newborns within the intended timeline. 

“No mother thinks such complications would happen to them,” Levin said. “You want to be with your child, so you’re constantly adjusting, accepting and adapting.”

While waiting for intended parents to find suitable transportation during the war, surrogate mothers may find themselves left to care for the child in addition to the children they already have. Many surrogate mothers don’t want to be bound to anything more than their nine-month service, contributing to the increasing shortage. 

Amid increasing complications due to COVID-19 and the Ukraine conflict, surrogacy rates have declined and the nature and culture of the industry may be permanently impacted even as the global pandemic gradually improves.