War in Ukraine boosts demand for Canadian surrogates
Assisted human reproduction in Canada is more expensive than in Ukraine but much less expensive than in the United States.
April 9, 2022
Ukraine is one of the only countries in the world that allows commercial surrogacy for foreigners. Every year, thousands of couples from all over the world travel there to obtain the services of a surrogate mother. But since the war began, it has been a race against time to save the genetic material of prospective parents, who are increasingly turning to Canada, a country more stable than Ukraine and more affordable than the United States.
"We're very busy," says Sally Rhoads-Heinrich, owner of Surrogacy in Canada Online, an Ontario agency that specialises in guiding couples through the surrogacy process.
Since the dispute began on 24 February, the agency has been inundated with requests from foreign couples seeking a Canadian surrogate.
"The number of requests has tripled."
- A quote from Sally Rhoads-Heinrich, owner of Surrogacy in Canada Online
"Currently, we have over 60 couples' files and only one surrogate available," she says.
Some of the couples who contact her come from as far away as Australia and Ireland, like Mark and Suzanne Sheerin, whose eight embryos were created at a fertility clinic in Kiev.
When the bombs began to fall on Kiev in February, the two Irishmen thought their dream of having a child from their own DNA would go up in smoke.
"Everyone in Ukraine was trying to save their lives and their families. So we thought there was little chance of getting our embryos out of the country. [We were grieving and coming to terms with the fact that we were going to have to go through the whole process again," says the couple, who live in south Dublin.
About two weeks later, the 30-year-olds got the surprise of their lives when they learned that their embryos were now in Slovakia.
The man who saved them is Birol Aydin. When he woke up to the sound of the explosions on 24 February, the Turkish embryologist had only one reflex: grab his passport and rush to retrieve the 50 000 embryos and 10 000 oocytes stored in his laboratory at the IV MED fertility clinic in Kiev.
"People were panicking and there were many accidents on the roads. When I arrived, the clinic was empty. I started freezing all the embryos," says the embryologist.
He and his colleague Uliana Dorofeyeva then filled the trunks of their two cars with tanks of liquid nitrogen and transported all the patients' genetic material, including the embryos of Mark and Suzanne Sheerin, to the Slovak capital Bratislava.
"We first tried to cross the Polish border, but we had to wait in line for 30 hours. So we decided to turn back, because during that time we couldn't sleep. We also had to stop the car to save fuel, but it was very cold," says Birol Aydin, who managed to cross the Slovak border on the third day of the journey.
The embryologist had to make three trips and travel almost 5,000 km to bring all the clinic's embryos and oocytes to safety.
"I did not have the consent of the clinic or the patients to transport the material. On the road, I thought for a long time about the risk I was taking from a legal point of view, for example if I had an accident. But I knew I was doing the right thing," he says.
A long journey to Canada
Now based in Bratislava, Birol Aydin continues to look after his embryos. From there, Mark and Suzanne Sheerin are now trying to get their embryos shipped to Canada.
The problem is that in Canada, assisted reproduction can cost more than $100,000, more than double the cost in Ukraine.
"When we realised that we had to go to Canada, we had to rethink all our plans. We are in the process of remortgaging our house," says Suzanne Sheerin.
Moreover, unlike Ukraine, Canada only allows altruistic surrogacy. A surrogate cannot be paid for her services, which greatly reduces the number of available surrogates.
"We don't have enough surrogates. Usually in Ukraine it takes three months to find a surrogate, whereas in Canada it can take years," says Sally Rhoads-Heinrich.
On the other side of the country, in British Columbia, the owner and founder of ANU Fertility Consultants Ltd, Lorraine Smith, sees the same phenomenon.
"The problem is that there are too many people who need our help. And when you lose a country like Ukraine and have to redirect people into a system that is already overburdened, it becomes even more complicated," she says.
Lawyer Cindy Wasser, of Toronto-based Hope Springs Fertility Law, says bringing in genetic material such as embryos can impose certain constraints.
"The embryos must have been created in a clinic that meets Canadian health and safety regulations," she says.
The lawyer also points out that the embryos must have the proper documentation to be used in Canada.
Mark and Suzanne Sheerin are not giving up hope, however, even if the wait is difficult.
"We know [our embryos] are safe, but we don't want to get attached to them. We have a long way to go before we have a baby in our arms," says Suzanne Sheerin.