Parents are hiring jets to see their surrogate children for the first time –

Sophie and Julian Parkinson are racing across the world to attend the birth of their son in Ukraine. Sophie is stuck in France, while Julian has made an almost 50-hour journey from Brisbane to Kiev, where their surrogate is carrying their first child. Border closures and travel restrictions have made getting there almost impossible.

In early May, after months of planning and replanning, Julian flew from Australia to Belarus via a 24-hour layover in London. The final leg of the journey was an eight-hour taxi across the Belarusian border and on to Kiev. Belarus has one of the only borders into Ukraine currently still open, and lacks an Australian embassy, so Julian had to work with the embassy in Moscow to complete his trip.

Plans seemed to change daily, says Julian. There are currently no direct commercial flights from Australia to Kiev. Originally, he had planned to transit through France, however Qatar Airways one of the only airlines still running that route blocked off that option to travellers without French visas. Other Australian families making the same journey had been turned away at the airport.

He was particularly concerned, as the surrogate he and Sophie had chosen previously gave birth prematurely. Time was running out.

Every year, thousands of prospective parents from all over the world travel to countries such as Ukraine, Canada, Georgia and the US to carry out surrogacies. Having a baby abroad is a complicated legal process at the best of times and coronavirus has only made things more challenging.

With many governments now ruling that travel should only be undertaken in life-or-death circumstances, intended parents with offspring due in far-flung places have to make new arrangements. Agencies and lawyers are tussling with embassies and foreign offices. Nine out of ten commercial flights have been grounded since lockdowns took effect in March.

Another complicating factor in this trip: the Ukrainian government will only process paperwork 48 hours before visitors are due to enter the country. Some visas only get a final stamp of approval when people are already in transit.

Julian has been working with Sam Everingham, global director of surrogacy agency Growing Families, who is coordinating the effort for a number of other couples with surrogates in Ukraine. The Parkinsons had anticipated travel problems as soon as it was clear the virus was spreading, but hadnt anticipated the extent of the global lockdown.

Sophie, who is a French citizen, is stuck in France. She had travelled to Paris before the global lockdown in March, presuming she would be able to drive to Ukraine if flying wasnt possible. But on March 17 the French government closed the countrys borders, and stopped citizens from leaving. Any plea to the French authorities for an exemption from lockdown rules has been flatly ignored or rejected.

For Julian, it has been an arduous journey, nearly seeing through a plan four years in the making. Sophie is still waiting.

In the past two decades, surrogacy has become a global phenomenon. As far back as 2012 the surrogacy industry was worth an estimated 4.7 billion a year. There are no precise figures tracking it now. Having a baby this way can cost more than 50,000.

In the UK alone, the number of surrogacies logged by the government has more than tripled over the past eight years, from 117 in 2011 to 430 in 2019. Commercial surrogacy is not currently legal in the UK and not widely accepted in the EU.

The Parkinsons baby is not yet born, but once it is, both parents must sign the birth certificate in Ukraine and take a DNA test before a new Australian passport can be issued for the baby. The pair envisage being in Ukraine for around two months after the birth, providing they are both able to get there.

Nobody is legally responsible for that child until were both in Ukraine, says Sophie. The only thing we can do is put pressure on the French government. They are being absolutely inhumane and they should be ashamed of what theyre doing. Sophie is also concerned for the wellbeing of her surrogate. She is physically okay, but mentally a mess, she says.

Brilliant Beginnings, a UK not-for-profit agency that facilitates international surrogacy, has about 35 ongoing cases where travel is an issue.

Weve sorted out a good system with the Home Office to get children who are born abroad British passports issued, now we have to work with the Foreign Office on travel, says fertility lawyer and Brilliant Beginnings founder Natalie Gamble. There are lots of moving parts.

In Ukraine and Georgia, the Foreign Office has to request permission from the ministry of foreign affairs in those countries for parents wishing to travel there. Getting home again is a more complicated issue. UK surrogacy law treats the surrogate and, if she is married, her husband, as the childs legal parents. This means that many of these children are not born British in the same way that other children born overseas are. Therefore the Home Office has to either grant or confirm British nationality, and from there the Passport Office can authorise the local embassy to issue an emergency UK passport for the child.

Currently, Brilliant Beginnings has four families in Ukraine that are struggling to get back to the UK, and another ten families that need to get there for the birth of babies. It also has six families in the US struggling to return, and seven surrogates expecting in the next few months.

Once youre pregnant and the babys due theres not a lot you can do to defer that, says Gamble.

For Ed Knox and his wife Olivia the situation has become so desperate that they have considered joining a group of other UK parents chartering a private plane to Ukraine. This would be a means of working around the lack of commercial flights and would leave at the end of May.

Cost-wise, its a drop in the ocean if you look at how much weve spent on surrogacy and fertility treatments in the last six years, says Ed Knox. He and Olivia are expecting a baby boy via surrogate in Ukraine in July.

That option is no use without permission, he continues. The problem with applying for a permit to travel from the Foreign Office is that there are probably people that have a more urgent need than us, so were not a priority.

Its horribly stressful and impossible to plan. You just dont know what the right thing to do is, says Olivia.

The logistics of international surrogacy have also been a problem in the US, not only due to travel restrictions, but also because passport offices are only processing documents for cases they deem urgent. This means many families are stuck there, too.

Oregon-based fertility lawyer Robin Pope has been lobbying for a better system to no avail. She believes that close to 200 babies are due to be born to surrogates in the US between March and August.

Pope represents three sets of parents based in China whose babies were born in the US in February. They have not yet been able to get to the US to meet their children, and have no idea when travel bans might lift. Grandparents are currently caring for two of the babies and the third is being cared for by the gestational surrogate who carried and gave birth to him. Pope estimates that with the extra expense of travel, visa overstay issues, accommodation and legal fees, new parents could be looking at additional outlays of around $15,000 (12,166).

In Canada, there has been more hope for imminent parents. Cindy Wasser, owner and founder of Hope Springs Fertility Law in Toronto has been the point person for coordinating with the government. I called on the evening of the Canadian travel ban, she says, which came into effect March 14. Orders were passed within nine days to allow families to come and go to collect infants.

You have to make a baby with a lot more thought than purchasing shoes, says Wasser. Prospective parents need to think carefully about which legal systems they trust.

She believes the difference in approach is partially a cultural issue. Some countries arent interested in helping foreigners, especially if theyre same-sex couples, she says. I hope the world sees this issue differently moving forward.

Expectant fathers Fabio and Marco, not their real names, arrived in Oregon from Milan in early May. The pair chose the US partly because of its attitude to same-sex relationships Ukraine wasnt an option for them for this reason. The baby is not yet born, and their departure date from the US is also unknown as they cannot leave without a passport for their baby once it does arrive. Milan was one of the first places in Italy to go into lockdown, so they faced a scramble to get to the US in time for the birth. The Italian government offered the couple no help navigating the situation, partly because surrogacy is illegal in Italy.

Emilie Jones is another soon-to-be parent trying to work out what to do. She and her husband, who are based in the UK, had opted for surrogacy after more than four years of failing to conceive. This included a miscarriage, a punctured uterus and ten failed IVF attempts. Surrogacy ended up being their best option to have a child.

We shipped our embryo to Ukraine basically in a thermos flask with a stranger on a flight. Our surrogate got pregnant in December. After four and a half years of doing this we were elated, says Emilie.

When you go through this process you move your goalposts constantly, she says. The couple are expecting their baby via surrogate in Kiev in August.

They had travelled to Ukraine in February for the 13-week scan, and were met by the military taking their temperature, as coronavirus checks were ramped up. Things have only got harder from there. The country has since brought in a tracking app that requires people to check in and verify they are staying at home with just 15 minutes of notice. It also requires a Ukrainian phone number. Emilie is determined to get there for the birth and has put the wheels in motion with her agency to organise a sim card ahead of time.

Its a fraught time in an industry that relies on robust bureaucracy and freely moving people, both of which are malfunctioning. Its been a traumatic journey to come to this point, and the thought of the date arriving and not being able to hold the baby or be there at birth is the scariest thing, says Emilie.

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