Bianca and Vinny Smith went through their packing checklist one last time. There was the paperwork, of course, all carefully ordered, double-checked and labelled. Foreign currency, phrasebooks and medical kits.
Then, neatly stacked side by side, tiny Babygros and vests, packs of newborn nappies, bottles, teats and tins of powdered baby milk. For tomorrow, they would fly out to the Ukraine as a childless married couple and return a few weeks later as parents, to twin boys, born via a surrogate.
After eight failed rounds of IVF and years of heartbreak — plus thousands of pounds spent — they’d almost given up on their dream of becoming parents. Now they were buzzing with excitement and nerves that finally their dream was about to be realised.
Bianca heard about the biggest surrogacy company in the Ukraine on a Facebook group. ‘They were offering a take-home baby guarantee,’ she says. ‘You pay around £40,000 and you keep going until you get a baby. They’ll swap out egg donors or surrogates until they get it right. And we thought, well, perfect.’
Bianca, 45, and Vinny Smith, 40, from Cheltenham, (pictured) said their surrogacy dream turned into a ‘nightmare’ after the couple paid £40k to a surrogacy company in the Ukraine
But author Bianca, 45, claims their surrogacy dream turned into a ‘nightmare’ after they flew into the Ukraine for the birth of their sons, Max and Alex, now nearly four.
There she saw, first hand, the true scale of the country’s shocking surrogate baby trade: women kept on a sweltering maternity ward with no air conditioning ‘like cattle’.
Surrogates forced to wash with bottles of water in filthy toilets, as there were no showers and they were too terrified to complain through fear of reprisals against their families.
The Smiths have since discovered that their surrogate, an unmarried mother-of-two from rural Ukraine, was rushed into emergency surgery for several blood transfusions after giving birth to their twins. They still feel guilty about what the surrogate went through on their behalf.
‘It’s very difficult for us to find out exactly how the surrogates were treated because of the language barrier,’ says Bianca. ‘But everyone I know who has been through the same firm as us has not been happy.’
The unavoidable fact is the couple, who are originally from Cheltenham, unwittingly fuelled a scandalous billion-pound international surrogacy trade in the Ukraine.
‘We adore our boys, but we are always thinking about our surrogate,’ Bianca says. ‘If only we had known about how she was treated, we would have done everything we could to make her experience better.’
After eight failed rounds of IVF, the couple contacted a surrogacy company in the Ukraine and their twin sons, Max and Alex, now nearly four, were conceived (Pictured: The Smiths)
While surrogacy is legal in the UK, the only payments allowed are expenses, i.e. those incurred as a result of the pregnancy, such as medical bills and compensation for time off work. Consequently, the number of UK women volunteering as surrogates is small which drives many couples abroad.
The Ukraine is one of the few places in the world where commercial surrogacy is allowed, since Cambodia, India, Nepal and Thailand all banned it in recent years owing to the abusive treatment of women.
Some countries, such as Spain, refuse to register children born from surrogates in the Ukraine because of similar concerns.
With no such restrictions here, dozens of highly organised Ukrainian companies are free to target the UK market. Through slick, promotional events, they use marketing videos featuring happy British couples with their babies. Their surrogates,they assure customers, are treated ‘like diamonds’.
But the brutal reality is that women are frequently kept under ‘surveillance’ during the final weeks of their pregnancies, banned from having contact with partners or other loved ones and forced to live under curfew, facing hefty fines if they break rules.
However, after they flew into the Ukraine for the birth they saw, first hand, the true scale of the country’s shocking surrogate baby trade, with women kept on a sweltering maternity ward with no air conditioning ‘like cattle’ (file photo)
Some were abandoned while in terrible pain, left with huge medical bills and are unable to have children of their own following complications in pregnancy.
One who had been through open-heart surgery was allowed to bear a child despite the risk and was forcibly separated from her own son. Another woman revealed the clinic had missed her now incurable cervical cancer in pre-pregnancy checks.
While the women are paid around £10,000 to carry babies for foreign couples — more than twice the average annual salary — the mental and physical cost is painfully high.
Meanwhile, there seems to be no age restriction to couples who want a surrogate child. One agency told of a UK couple who wanted an heir for their property empire so had a child in their late 60s using the father’s sperm and a donor egg. When our undercover reporters posed as an elderly couple, they were told by several agencies it would be ‘no problem’.
Bianca, who lives in Cozumel, Mexico, where Vinny is stationed as a military consultant, says the couple had tried to accept being childless. Then Bianca found out about the Ukrainian ‘guaranteed baby’ VIP programme for £43,000. They flew out in July 2016 for a consultation, and Bianca says: ‘Everything seemed perfect — we were excited.’
Their surrogate was a 29-year-old unmarried mother-of-two who was rushed into emergency surgery for several blood transfusions after giving birth to their twins
Three months later, they returned to Kiev for Vinny’s sperm deposit and to choose their egg donor from a database that included pictures and videos of the Ukrainian women, and details such as eye colour, height and weight, education and occupation.
Their surrogate, a 29-year-old baker, was found within a week. ‘I knew she was doing it for the money but that didn’t alarm me. I have a friend in the U.S. who has been a surrogate four times and does it for the money. I didn’t see it as exploitation,’ Bianca says.
They then met the surrogate, signed the paperwork and paid the deposit. The next month, the donor had her egg retrieval and by December the surrogate was pregnant with twins. For the next few months, their only contact with her was via Skype with a translator employed by the clinic.
‘We found out only her boyfriend and two kids knew about the surrogacy — a lot of them do it in secret because it’s frowned upon by the locals,’ Bianca says.
As the babies’ due date approached, in July 2017, ‘everything started unravelling’.
The Smiths say they ‘love their boys more than anything’ but they still feel guilty for what their surrogate went through on their behalf
‘It began with the service we were given when we arrived for the birth,’ says Bianca. ‘We were told we would have a “luxury” apartment but it was filthy — absolutely disgusting. It was definitely not an environment for a newborn baby.’
The couple complained to the agency and asked for a cleaner — but they did such a ‘terrible’ job they were forced to buy cleaning products and scrub down the apartment themselves.
Bianca and Vinny, 40, had also paid for a private hospital for their surrogate, but were told she was going to the public hospital.
‘It was filthy and reeked of cigarette smoke,’ Bianca says. ‘The private hospital is used to surrogates, but in the public hospital, we were screamed and shouted at. They didn’t want us there.’
They’d also been told their surrogate would live in an apartment in Kiev for the last few weeks of the pregnancy ‘so they could keep an eye on her’ and ensure her pregnancy was going well.
Again, not the case. ‘Turns out, she was on a maternity ward where they keep all the surrogates before they give birth like cattle,’ says Bianca. ‘We only discovered this after our babies were born.’
The birth was natural and Bianca was able to be in the room with their surrogate.
The staff took the babies straight away. Neither the surrogate nor Bianca held them at first. ‘I was scared to hold them in case I broke them,’ she says.
‘Although the babies were in perfect health, we were told we had to stay for the weekend. We only found out afterwards from the surrogate that this was because she needed several blood transfusions.’
The couple were put up in a makeshift room with the babies.
‘We stayed on the surrogate ward, so that’s how we saw the surrogates all crammed together. It was boiling and there was no air conditioning — in the middle of summer.’
When it was time for the couple to leave with the babies, Bianca says she and the surrogate wept.
‘I was extremely grateful to her, but I could also imagine how empty she must feel after carrying the boys for nine months and then giving them up,’ she explains.
Becoming tearful, Bianca recalls: ‘She left the hospital crying. I asked her if she would do it again, and she said: “No, it hurts my heart too much.” ’
‘The agency had told us we would get someone who was used to surrogacy, but this was her first time and it tore her apart emotionally.’
Back in the UK, like all parents having children via surrogates, the Smiths had to apply for a parental order from a British court. This transfers legal parenthood from the surrogate to the parents.
Settling into life as a new parent, Bianca started a blog describing her surrogacy experience.
To her shame, before the birth, Bianca had been so impressed with the process she’d offered to act as a intermediary between the clinic and prospective parents. She says now that she had been ‘absolutely naive’.
‘Right up until we got to the apartment in Ukraine to get ready for the boys’ birth, we kept singing their praises because all we could think about was our dream of parenthood about to come true.
‘I’m so unhappy I sent couples their way — if we’d had more information back then, I would have warned people not to go anywhere near that clinic,’ she says.
‘They’re not thinking about people’s lives, or the emotional aspect of these intended parents who just want a child.’
MPs are now calling for urgent reforms to deter British couples from going to the Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights called for the ‘baby trade’ to be banned.
‘We love our boys more than anything,’ says Bianca. ‘But if we had our time again, we would try to fly our surrogate out to live with us while she was pregnant. Then we could make sure she was looked after properly.’
Published by Associated Newspapers Ltd
Part of the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday & Metro Media Group