In Russia, single fathers, whose children were born to surrogate mothers, are worried about being implicated in a human trafficking case that critics say is being instrumentalized for homophobic reasons.
A few years ago, lawyer Vladimir (name changed) who lives in a big Russian city decided to have a child with the help of a surrogate mother. His whole family was pleased when a girl was born. She was the first daughter in three generations. His parents and other relatives, including his 80-year-old grandmother, have provided much help in bringing up Vladimir's daughter, who is now almost three.
Few people know that Vladimir, a gay man, went through a surrogate program. His neighbors may have their suspicions, but they do not ask questions.
"When I decided to have children, there were various clinics for reproductive medicine," said Vladimir, who opted for the cheapest option. In vitro fertilization with a donor egg costs 250,000 rubles (€2,744, $3,214). All up, Vladimir paid the equivalent of €22,000 euros. The surrogate mother, a Ukrainian woman, received half.
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The birth was not easy, and the baby girl had to spend some time in hospital. The doctors advised Vladimir to sort out the formalities as quickly as possible and he received the baby's birth certificate, in which the mother's name had been crossed out, within a week.
Vladimir registered his daughter at a local kindergarten as soon as they got back home because the waiting list is so long. He also began receiving financial support. "It's good that the state recognizes us as a family," he says.
One day he will explain to his daughter — who sometimes calls him "papa-mama" — just how she came into the world.
Despite surrogacy being legal in Russia, Vladimir is worried about their status as a family unit. At the end of September, he heard from friends that the authorities were planning on arresting unmarried men with children born to surrogate mothers. Media reports hinted that the arrests were in conjunction with a child-trafficking case, involving the death of a baby born to a surrogate mother.
"To be honest, I was really scared," said Vladimir. "I've not been confronted with homophobia since becoming a single father. But it seems to be coming now. It's unfair."
Though he didn't want to leave Russia, Vladimir said he was thinking about it: "In such an atmosphere, it could be better to leave. I've got a cousin and friends in Germany. That's probably the best place for us."
Lawyer Igor Trunov has also made public the threat faced by gay men with children in Russia. He is representing the parents of children born by surrogacy who face trafficking charges in a case that started out having nothing to do with single fathers.
In January this year, a newborn child of a surrogate mother died of natural causes in an apartment near Moscow. The baby's nanny reported the death to the police. Authorities established that there were other babies conceived by surrogate in the apartment. Several nannies were reportedly looking after them while their intended parents completed paperwork before being able to take them home, sometimes abroad.
Reports about a "suspicious apartment" appeared on Russian television and the authorities started investigating. The babies were put in a care home and the inquiry was expanded to include other cases of surrogacy and organized human trafficking resulting in death.
Several people have been arrested and at least 10, including doctors and two nannies, have been charged. Most work for the company Rosjurconsulting, which is specialized in reproductive law and medically assisted reproduction or for the European Surrogacy Center in Russia (ECSM), which provides support and accommodation to surrogate mothers. The two organizations have worked together for years and have helped hundreds of people wanting to have children.
"I've been working in accordance with the law since 2003," the CEO of Rosjurconsulting Konstantin Svitnev, and one of those charged, told DW. "We were the first law firm to work in this area in Russia. Now there are hundreds of surrogacy agencies, but they are only investigating me and people whom I've worked with."
He said that the prosecutors wanted to prove that they had been involved in baby trafficking and had simply handed newborns over to clients, whose eggs or semen had not been used at all. "This is not the case," Svitnev insisted, pointing out that the defense team had put forward the results of a genetic report as evidence.
Russian lawyer Konstantin Svitnev says he knows of several single fathers who have since left the country
The authorities, he said, were not interested in human trafficking but in the sexual orientation of Rosjurconsulting and ECSM's customers. Reports in the media implied that during interrogation, doctors were asked to provide information about any "signs of homosexuality," amongst other things, which were exhibited by their clients.
"I never even ask my clients about such a thing," said Svitnev angrily. He added, that in 2010, a court confirmed to him explicitly that single fathers could also take part in surrogacy programs. "This looks like an attack by the authorities on people who do not have a traditional sexual orientation, which, of course, is completely discriminatory."
He said that searches that had been conducted into clinics with which Rosjurconsulting and ECSM worked in September were proof that investigators had been looking for gay fathers specifically because they had sought out information about single men. He also said that the interrogators had phoned several single fathers for an informal conversation. The Russian Investigative Committee would neither confirm nor deny reports about the interrogations or the nature of the probe. A request for information by DW to the committee remains unanswered. "The silence says plenty," says Svitnev. "They were caught in the act."
Svitnev has advised his clients not to partake in any informal conversations and to request an official summons. He also recommends fathers and their children have a DNA test and make sure all their medical files about the surrogacy are in order and legally certified.
Two of his clients have decided to leave Russia with their children.