Surrogacy on the Rise in the South Caucasus
As the practice thrives, experts warn that oversight is crucial to ensure protection and prevent exploitation.
It was financial hardship that pushed Gayane to consider becoming a surrogate. In 2020 her husband had lost his job and the couple struggled to make a living in their village in Syunik region, in south-eastern Armenia. They took out a loan, then others followed: with debt accumulating they found themselves trapped in a financial tailspin.
Mother-of-one Gayane decided that becoming a surrogate was the family’s only way out of poverty.
“My husband was opposed,” she said. “But I was resolute.”
Hundreds of miles north in Georgia, Mariam faced similar challenges, trying to make ends meet in the village where she, her husband and their four children lived. She also chose surrogacy.
“I searched for information online and I contacted an agent who knew what the process was…I just knew that I had to do it and that I would be paid,” she told IWPR.
Georgia and Armenia are two of the few countries where commercial surrogacy is legal, allowing a woman to be paid to carry someone else’s genetic child through IVF and embryo-transfer.
This has led to a steady increase in the number of childless couples turning to surrogates in both countries.
“The first time I felt the child moving I thought to keep it and run away.”
Price also plays a role. The cost of having a child via a surrogate in Armenia or Georgia ranges between 25,000 to 60,000 US dollars. In contrast, prospective parents can expect to pay upwards of 120,000 dollars in the few US states where the practice is legal.
Gayane was paid about 15,000 dollars and Mariam 17,000 dollars.
The two countries’ legal frameworks regulating the practice are similar and have been amended in recent years to enforce stricter rules on an area which functioned as a kind of grey zone until 2000.
In Armenia a surrogate must be aged 18–35, have at least one child of her own and, if married, have the written consent of her husband. She must undergo medical and genetic testing to ensure she is healthy. In both countries, the surrogate cannot be the egg donor.
“The child is handed over to the intended parents only after the results of the DNA testing that all parties have to undergo, including the surrogate mother and the baby; this is to exclude any biological connection between the two,” explained Maria Shahnazaryan, a Yerevan-based lawyer who specialises in surrogacy.
In Armenia women can be surrogates only twice, while there no limit in Georgian law, which was amended in December 2022 to state clearly that only married, heterosexual couples are allowed to access the practice.
Surrogacy is on the rise. Data from Georgia’s Public Service Development Agency shows that 36 children were born through surrogacy in 2012, rising to 809 in 2022. In total, 4,433 children were born via surrogacy (including stillbirths) in Georgia during those ten years.
There is no data available from Armenia, although anecdotal evidence suggests a similar trend.
But as surrogacy thrives, experts maintain that close oversight is needed to ensure protection and prevent exploitation.
Tbilisi-based sociologist Nino Rcheulishvili noted that everyone involved in paid surrogacy was motivated by self-interest - infertility in the case of the intended parents, and financial gain in the case of the surrogate. However, the surrogate - often impoverished - was inevitably the most vulnerable party.
“Agencies state that, for both human and reputational reasons, they are interested in ensuring that the relation between the surrogate mother and the parents is structured in such a way that the surrogate mother is not exploited,” she told IWPR.
"She made my dream come true, of being a mother.”
This included, for example, strict regulations on processes in case of complications during pregnancy that could harm the surrogate’s health.
“Someone should take responsibility for it, someone should be responsible for the [surrogates] post-natal health,” Rcheulishvili said.
Nino Andriashvili, a Tbilisi-based lawyer at the Sapari women’s rights advocacy NGO, said that the contract agreed between the parties was key.
“According to the law, a notarised contract needs to be signed between the surrogate and the intended parents. It remains a key problem in Georgia, since there were cases when the embryo was transferred into the surrogate mother’s body and only after that, the contract was signed. The law clearly indicates that the notarised contract comes first and then the embryo is transferred.”
Zara Hovhannisyan, a member of the Armenian Against Violence Against Women coalition, said that oversight had improved.
“Today the legislation regulates the age [of a surrogate] and a woman can be a surrogate if she has at least one child, which psychologically protects the woman,” she said, while adding, “Surrogates can still face psychological problems during the pregnancy.”
Surrogates are mostly found through advertisement.
“I saw an anonymous post in a Facebook group; it said ‘if the topic is interesting, put a + [in the comments] and you will be contacted.’ I did,” Gayane told IWPR. “To my surprise, a woman I was familiar with wrote to me. She and her husband were looking for a surrogate mother. We met.”
“[Georgian] legislation on surrogacy and donation allows us to make the process relatively simple,” said Natia Narsia, who manages a surrogacy agency in Tbilisi. “The agreement between the intended parents and the surrogate is signed in Georgia, it is a notarised document, on the basis of which the birth certificate is issued.”
Eduard Hambardzumyan, founding director of the Yerevan-based Fertility Centre, stressed that surrogates “have to be in excellent health condition, physically and psychologically; we pay a lot of attention to the woman's lifestyle and her family”.
The assistance provided to surrogates includes crucial psychological support.
“The first time I felt the child moving I thought to keep it and run away,” Gayane recalled. “A psychologist assisted me through the whole period, she helped me a lot. It was very difficult to part from the baby.”
For Mariam, the relation with the intended parents was important: they were in regular contact both during the pregnancy and after.
“Initially, I could not see how I could give this child to someone else,” she told IWPR. “It was difficult for me until the last minute; it was difficult for me to accept that I have to give away this baby.”
Most surrogates keep their pregnancies secret. Both Gayane and Mariam spent the last period of pregnancy in the capital, away from their families.
“This is a very complex and delicate process, to which Armenian society has just begun to adapt,” Armenian psychologist Martin Vardanyan told IWPR.
He noted that lack of understanding had hindered society’s acceptance of surrogacy.
“People still have limited knowledge, they do not understand what it is. Our mentality plays a role in the negative attitude towards it,” he concluded
FULFILLING A DREAM
For Francene, an Australian national, surrogacy was her only route to motherhood as she could not have children for medical reasons. She wanted her Georgian surrogate to receive all the assistance she would get if she herself were pregnant.
“We wanted her to be happy, we wanted our baby to be happy,” Francene told IWPR. “I will always be grateful to her for what she did [for us]. She made my dream come true, of being a mother.”
Lilit had a different reason for seeking a surrogate’s help. The 48-year-old Armenian had a son who died in the 2020 war.
“After he died, I started to think that I wanted to be a mother again,” she told IWPR. “I consulted different doctors, got tested, tried IVF, but to no avail. Last year , the doctor suggested surrogacy. I thought about it for a long time before my husband and I decided to go for it.”
Lilit benefited from the Armenian government’s decision to substantially expand the already existing IVF programme, which would provide support to women whose sons died during the 2020 war.
This helped ensure that her surrogate, thirty-year-old Anna, successfully conceived.
Anna was also motivated by financial necessity, although she was afraid of becoming a surrogate in Armenia due to the social stigma.
Meeting Lilit, the mother of a fallen soldier, changed everything.
“I had to overcome a psychological hurdle,” Anna said, adding, “I was also very afraid of society’s opinion... Now I'm fully ready, as I'm going to help the mother of a hero.”
All names of surrogate mothers and intended parents have been changed.