Ben and Abbie Rosenberg’s relationship got its start the old-fashioned way. Not their initial meeting—that happened on Jdate, a Jewish dating site—but their courtship, which took place mostly in writing. They were both living in New York at the time, but Abbie, an event planner, was on a business trip, opening a restaurant in Miami, when Ben first messaged her. Then Ben went to visit family in Israel. They exchanged Jdate messages, which turned into e-mails, texts, Skype sessions, and, finally, synchronized viewings of “The Colbert Report” while talking on the phone. By the time they met in person, a month later, “we were already friends, and were on our way to falling in love,” Abbie recalled. Ben pulled his car up alongside Fort Greene Park, and Abbie got in the passenger seat. They held hands and talked for so long that the engine died.
Three years later, they were married and trying to have children. They were both thirty-eight. The desire to procreate had crept up on them. Abbie, who is petite with dark-brown hair, was running events at Chelsea Market, a fancy mall in Manhattan. Ben, who has a close-cut beard, was managing a small group of properties in Queens. Their friends were having babies; Abbie said, “Suddenly, we just knew this would be the next step for us—becoming parents.” But Abbie had trouble getting pregnant. There were medical issues—she had a uterine fibroid removed—and she underwent a series of fertility treatments, all of which failed. After years on the roller coaster of in-vitro fertilization—endless visits to doctors, ovulation-tracker apps, disappointing phone calls—they threw in the towel. “I was, like, ‘Forget it. I just want to be a mom. Let’s adopt,’ ” Abbie said.
A friend connected them with an adoption agency in Texas, and they flew down for a weekend orientation. There, they learned about the complexities of the endeavor, including the fact that, in some open adoptions, the birth mother chooses the adoptive parents. At some agencies, the whole process is also wrapped up in Christian, pro-life beliefs. They watched a video of a teen-age girl weeping as she handed her baby over to a set of adoptive parents. On their way back to New York, Ben said, “This doesn’t feel right for us. Let’s not do this.” They still wanted a baby, but their next step was unclear. Their doctor had previously recommended that they try gestational surrogacy—hiring another woman to carry their biological child—but the process would cost more than a hundred thousand dollars, which was more than they could afford. At one point, a friend’s sister had agreed to carry the baby for a nominal fee of twenty thousand dollars. They had travelled to New Mexico, where she lives, for the medical procedures, but two embryos had failed to implant.
One night after their trip to Texas, Abbie was hosting an event at Chelsea Market when one of the guests, a chatty Latvian man, told her about a friend of his who was having a baby through a surrogate in Ukraine, where the process costs a fraction of what it does in the United States. Abbie’s ears perked up. She grew up in Massachusetts, but her family has Ukrainian roots; “My mom was always making chicken Kiev,” she said. She joined a Facebook group called Intended Parents Surrogacy Support Ukraine, where she found couples from all over the world—India, Australia, the U.K.—trading notes. A few weeks later, the Rosenbergs signed up with a small reproductive agency in Ukraine called New Hope, which matched them with a surrogate, a thirty-year-old woman who lives outside of Kyiv. It was the woman’s second job with the agency; Abbie said, “I found it encouraging that she was coming back for more, so to speak.” By August of 2019, the surrogate was pregnant with the Rosenbergs’ baby, a girl whom they’d decided to name Odessa, for both the Ukrainian city and the hero of Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Although they never met in person, the two women developed a friendship via Facebook messages. They shared pictures of their cats and of their mothers, whom they’d both lost that year. Abbie said, “We’d cry together over chat.”
Odessa was scheduled to be born, by C-section, on April 24th, and the Rosenbergs planned to arrive a month early, to prepare. By March, COVID-19 was making headlines. Abbie and the surrogate exchanged anxious messages. “I’m very worried about you,” the Ukrainian woman wrote, after seeing a news report about the virus in New York. But flights were still running between J.F.K. and Kyiv, and no one was sure how serious the situation was. Abbie said, “We were, like, ‘It’s going to work out.’ ” Instead, the opposite happened. Public gatherings were cancelled. On March 9th, Abbie was laid off, along with the rest of her team, shortly before the city’s shelter-in-place order went into effect. Countries around the world began issuing travel restrictions. “We were watching in awe,” Abbie said. On March 15th, Ukraine closed its borders. Flights to Kyiv were cancelled.
The Rosenbergs frantically e-mailed Julia Osiyevska, who runs New Hope, but, like everyone else, she was at a loss. When she contacted the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Rosenbergs’ behalf, she told me, “The first word from the officials was, like, ‘Maybe they’ll open the border up in September.’ ” What had begun as a minor tragedy—the Rosenbergs might not be there for their daughter’s birth—started to seem like an emergency. Under Ukrainian law, healthy newborns are only allowed to stay in the hospital for twenty-eight days. Osiyevska was willing to take Odessa home after that, but the maternity hospital said that she could only be discharged to her legal parents. The director of the hospital suggested an alternate plan: when her term was up, Odessa would be transferred to a nearby orphanage. The hospital would rent out a wing where nurses would care for babies born to surrogates, and no visitors would be permitted, owing to COVID-19. “This is when I finally started crying,” Abbie told me. “We were, like, what do you mean ‘an orphanage?’ ”
The Rosenbergs were not alone. As the virus spread, and travel froze, parents around the world suddenly found themselves separated, by thousands of miles, from newborns who were, in fact, their biological children. Commercial surrogacy is growing more popular, thanks to a number of converging factors: advances in reproductive technology, a wave of restrictive adoption laws, the rise of gay rights, and the fact that women in developed countries are waiting longer before having children, leading to more problems with fertility. But it’s also illegal in most of the world, including in almost all of mainland Europe. Opponents of the practice argue that it makes surrogates vulnerable to exploitation, especially if they are poor, and creates risks for the children. (A few countries, such as Australia and the U.K., permit surrogacy if it’s not done for payment.)
As a result, every year, thousands of would-be parents travel abroad, to the handful of countries where surrogacy is legal. One of the biggest destinations is the United States, which has cutting-edge reproductive technology and the most permissive laws: both same-sex couples and unmarried people can have children via a surrogate. But the price tag is out of reach for many people, and, in the past decade, Ukraine has emerged as a cheaper alternative. Ukrainian surrogates give birth to several thousand babies every year, the majority of whom have foreign parents. The country has around fifty reproductive clinics and numerous agencies that act as middlemen, matching couples with egg donors and surrogates.