In Ukraine, a growing number of Ukrainian men are having their sperm frozen in case they are injured or killed at the front. The couples want babies even if the father never comes home.
Natalia Kyrkach-Antonenko received the news two hours after the event. An artillery hit. shrapnel in the head. dead seconds. Volunteer soldiers recognized her husband Vitaly by his diabolical looks and long hair; He didn’t wear his nickname “Beautiful” without reason.
A phone call later, Ms. Kyrkach-Antonenko’s dream of starting a family together was shattered. But the situation did not catch her unprepared. She now wants to start a family on her own, using the sperm that the couple froze during Vitaly’s home vacation.
In an emotional appeal to social media she wrote a month after her husband’s death, she urged other couples to do the same. “It might be your only chance. Think about it and don’t delay, I beg of you.”
In February, Russian tanks brought Ukraine’s previously thriving reproductive industry to a standstill. In April, clinics reopened in a whole new world. Previously, clients were typically foreigners taking advantage of Ukraine’s liberal surrogacy regulations. Now it is often Ukrainian couples who worry because the husband has to go to war.
Mother and Child, the country’s largest fertility clinic, launched a program to meet increased demand, encouraging soldiers and women to freeze their sperm or eggs for free in case they were injured or killed on the front lines should be. Associated partners have been offered deep discounts for artificial insemination, which typically costs between $1,300 and $4,000.
For the financially weakest, treatment was free. Doctors dubbed the initiative “Hero Nation,” a reference to the growing number of babies fathered by dead or seriously injured parents. In her opinion, the program has helped the clinic return to approximately 80% of its pre-war occupancy rate.
Vitaly Radko, a 37-year-old doctor who works at the main Kyiv branch, says he wasn’t sure his staff would keep their jobs when the clinic reopened in the spring. But when the mobilization began, he saw that the number of patients increased again. Meanwhile, 30 to 40 military couples are walking through the doors to his treatment rooms, dodging bundles of cables.
These connect the emergency diesel generators to the cooling chambers where the eggs, sperm and embryos are stored. Hundreds of photographs of children who were born through his help hang in his office. Before the war began, almost half of his patients were foreigners, mainly from China, but also from America, Great Britain, France, Italy and Spain. Now it’s just Ukrainians. Forty percent are military personnel.
Men are generally taciturn when they come to his practice, says Dr. Radko. The women do the talking. But everyone understands the underlying message. “The doctor and the couple know that the man could be injured or killed fighting at the front. You don’t need to say that explicitly. You can tell from their mood and serious faces that they are aware of this.”
The doctor explains that the war changed his attitude towards his job and that he had never felt so useful. It’s up to people like him to limit the catastrophic impact of the Russian invasion on Ukraine’s birth rates. “When your country is at war and you’re not on the front lines, then you have to do what you do best, and what we do best is give birth to new Ukrainians.”
However, the practical implementation of the treatment can be associated with complications, as soldiers often arrive at the clinic wounded or stressed. Dealing with the Ukrainian bureaucracy can also be complicated. Local laws do not provide a legal basis for the use of a donor’s genetic material after death. The clinics therefore require their patients to have a private power of attorney, in which the right to post-mortem reproduction is expressly mentioned.
Tanya and her partner Eduard Konovka, who serves in the Ukrainian Navy, have already obtained these papers, just in case. They are two of Dr. Radko’s new patients and started in vitro fertilization at the end of December after 12 years of unsuccessful attempts to conceive.
The couple traveled all the way from the Black Sea coast to take advantage of the clinic’s free program. They explain that this last hope for a child is something that gave them courage in difficult times. “Russia cannot take from us what is most important: our time, our strength of character and our dreams.”
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Psychologist Inna Tikhonova, who advises several military couples, warns of the possible dangers. “Having a child with a dead man isn’t a consolation that can heal a wound…it can make the trauma worse,” she explains. “Some institutions advise avoiding any decision that has consequences in the first year after the loss.”
But Mrs Kyrkach-Antonenko, who has now had 20 years to use her dead husband’s sperm, explains that apart from the diaries he sent her from the trenches, the only thing she wants is the chance to have a child left from him. “Vitaly may not be alive anymore, but he still has the opportunity to become a father. As long as I live, I want to have as many children from him as possible.”
This text first appeared in The Economist and was translated by Andrea Schleipen.
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