Dilara has been living in Tbilisi, Georgia for several months now, turning her hand to various types of work, from hairdressing to shoemaking to waitressing.
But really, there’s just one job she wants: to carry someone else’s baby.
The widowed 34-year-old mother of four left her children with her parents in Uzbekistan last year, hoping to find work in the country’s nascent commercial surrogacy industry.
“I had loan debts from the bank and I have four children to take care of. They have school, they have expenses, you know. It’s hard on my own,” Dilara told CNBC.
Of course I would like to be a surrogate mother.
Commercial surrogacy refers to an arrangement in which a woman is paid a fee for carrying a pregnancy for another person or couple. This differs from altruistic surrogacy, in which a woman volunteers to carry a pregnancy without any compensation beyond medical reimbursements.
Typically, commercial surrogacy is gestational surrogacy, meaning the surrogate has no biological link to the child.
The laws around surrogacy vary widely from country to country and state to state. In the U.S., for instance, the practice is permitted in some states but banned in others, while in Canada and the U.K., only altruistic surrogacy is allowed. In Georgia, meanwhile, as in Ukraine and Russia, both forms are legal.
The growing commercial surrogacy industry
Dilara is one of a growing number of women turning to commercial surrogacy as a source of income amid swelling global demand for carriers.
The global commercial surrogacy industry was worth an estimated $14 billion in 2022, according to market research consultancy Global Market Insights — though exact numbers are hard to verify given the private nature of many arrangements.
By 2032, that figure is forecast to rise to $129 billion, as infertility issues increase and a growing number of same-sex couples and single people look for ways to have babies.
That demand is driven primarily by so-called intended parents in wealthy, Western nations. Many of these are seeking cross-border surrogacy services to avoid long waiting lists or higher fees at home, or because domestic laws forbid surrogacy or exclude particular groups — such as gay couples — from the practice. The end of Covid-19 travel bans also led to an increase in global surrogacy demand last year.
“The pandemic reduced international surrogacy, but we’re now seeing all that pent up demand,” surrogacy expert Sam Everingham, who’s global director of Sydney, Australia-based surrogacy support group Growing Families, said.
Ukraine war pushes surrogacy into new markets
Until last year, Ukraine was the world’s second-largest surrogacy market behind the U.S., attracting foreign would-be parents with lower fees and a favorable regulatory framework. Crucially, that includes naming intended parents on the baby’s birth certificate, rather than the surrogate mother.
But that all changed with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Reports quickly emerged of surrogate mothers relocating to bomb shelters and prospective parents trying to enter Ukraine to be united with their surrogates.
A woman cares for a surrogate-born baby in a makeshift basement shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine following after Russia’s invasion.
Anastasia Vlasova | Getty Images News | Getty Images
“We had a lot of intended parents who were at different stages of the process with us,” said Olga Pysana, partner at Ukrainian surrogacy agency World Center of Baby, which at that time had 37 pregnant surrogates and 130 intended parents on its books. “We had to quickly come up with an alternative.”
The conflict pushed the industry into countries such as nearby Georgia, where the laws closely mirror Ukraine’s. World Center of Baby, which already had operations in Cyprus in 2022, plans to open its Georgia office this month. Mexico and parts of Latin America, meanwhile, have also seen a surge.
In Georgia, as in Ukraine, commercial surrogacy programs cost around $40,000-$50,000, while in Mexico they are about $60,000-$70,000. That compares with an average of $120,000 and higher in the U.S.
“Here in Mexico, we’re having again the boom around surrogacy, because Ukraine is closed,” Ernesto Noriega, chief executive and founder of Egg Donors Miracles, a fertility agency based in Cancun, Mexico, said, noting a 20%-30% increase in surrogacy arrangements last year.
A source of income for women
The global boom has driven an uptick in demand for surrogates, with Facebook groups and agency adverts appealing to women with the promise of sizable incomes.
Lauragh from southeast Ireland, whose son was born in Oct. 2021, said her surrogate was able to buy a home for herself and her two daughters in Ukraine with her earnings from the program.
The main driving factor, whether in Ukraine, Georgia, Mexico … is the financial motivation behind it.
partner, World Center of Baby
“The main driving factor, whether in Ukraine, Georgia, Mexico — all the main markets — is the financial motivation behind it,” Pysana said of surrogates.
Indeed, Dilara was attracted by the prospect of higher earnings when she was first introduced to surrogacy by a colleague working with her at a call center. “If you want to do surrogacy, they give you good money,” she recalled being told by her younger female colleague.
However, the draw of women into the industry has raised concerns, not least for the often large disparity between agency fees and surrogates’ ultimate earnings. In many cases, a surrogate may earn less than a quarter of the tens of thousands of dollars charged to intended parents.
An embryologist assesses the quality of retrieved oocytes – a female germ cell – prior to fertilization.
World Center of Baby
“There is one thing I have been researching for two months about this job, and the doctors take $50,000, $60,000 from the parents and give from $12,000 to $20,000 to the surrogate mother,” Dilara said. “It’s unfair what they do.”
Pysana and Noriega, for their part, said their agency fees were justified due to the high medical expenses involved in the process, as well as the cost of housing and feeding surrogates in their final weeks of pregnancy. However, they acknowledged that corruption exists at other firms.
Ethical concerns and exploitation risks
There are also substantial ethical issues surrounding commercial surrogacy, with critics arguing that the industry takes advantage of vulnerable women.
One prerequisite for many agencies, for instance, is that would-be surrogates are either widowed or single and that they already have at least one child. Agencies say this is to demonstrate a woman is physically and psychologically prepared for pregnancy, and to avoid any disputes with their partners.
This is not a good industry for women. For me, they are victims.
Teresa Ulloa Ziaurriz
regional director, CATWLAC
“This is not a good industry for women,” said Teresa Ulloa Ziaurriz, regional director at the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean (CATWLAC). “For me, they’re victims.”
Ulloa Ziaurriz said that in her experience working as a women’s reproductive lawyer across Latin America — chiefly in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico — agencies specifically target those facing financial hardship.
“After the pandemic, a lot of women lost their jobs. They looked for single women with children who desperately needed economic support,” she said of agencies, describing the process as a form of human trafficking.
The surrogacy process is also physically and psychologically demanding, and while most agencies require prospective carriers to undergo mental and physical health checks before entering into an arrangement, a lack of regulation leaves scope for mistreatment.
“There are no international standards and new programs are being launched in unregulated places,” Everingham said.
A call for surrogacy standards
Some countries are now trying to right these shortcomings. In the U.K., for instance, regulatory authorities are working on a review to improve domestic surrogacy safeguards.
“While there is little we can do to alter surrogacy laws abroad, what we can do is ensure that the regime in the U.K. is well regulated and in the best interests of the child, surrogate and intended parents,” professor Nick Hopkins, family law commissioner at the Law Commission of England and Wales, said.
In the first three quarters of 2022, more than 400 parental orders were made for surrogate parents in the U.K. According to the Law Commission, the number of children born via surrogacy could be around 10 times higher today than it was a decade ago.
Women’s rights groups are calling for greater regulation of the commercial surrogacy industry.
Yuriy Dyachyshyn | Afp | Getty Images
But with no international coordination, Lauragh said the onus is on intended parents to do their research and ensure that surrogate mothers are given a fair deal.
“If you’re looking to undertake the process it’s your responsibility to do the research,” said Lauragh, noting that she insisted on having direct communication with her surrogate throughout the process. The two remain in touch today.
“There are some very cheap agencies out there, but if they’re cheap you can be sure that the surrogate is paying the price for it,” she added.
Still, surrogacy advocates insist that, aside from offering a path to parenthood for those who cannot conceive naturally, surrogacy can be enabling for women.
“If you speak to surrogates, they say that this is quite empowering,” Pysana said. “They have a feeling that they’re doing something great.”
Dilara, meanwhile, said her surrogacy journey remains ongoing.
“If there is a good hospital and they give me a good price, of course I would like to be a surrogate mother,” she said.