In January 2021, the Russian State Duma declared that they were drafting a bill to amend the current regulation of surrogacy in Russia. If accepted, the new bill would prohibit foreigners and unmarried couples from seeking surrogacy in Russia.
Under the current law, commercial, gestational surrogacy is legal for married and unmarried heterosexual couples and single women, Russian citizens, residents and foreigners alike. While single men are not explicitly mentioned in the law, successful law cases in favour of paternity for single fathers through surrogacy and egg donation, have also helped create a precedent establishing the practice of offering surrogacy to single men and same-sex couples.
To date, the liberal regulation of surrogacy makes Russia one of the most permissive places to seek surrogacy, 'a reproductive paradise, a country where almost everybody willing to have a child through ART may fulfill [sic] their dream' (Svitnev 2012).
However, the newly drafted bill would restrict surrogacy to married heterosexual couples with residence permits in Russia. Intended parents seeking surrogacy would need to have been married for at least one year, be at least 25 years old but not older than 55 years, and couples would need a valid medical reason for the use of surrogacy.
Though the latter is already required by the current law, the climate around surrogacy has been changing. This has been prompted in part by the arrests of fertility doctors charged with child trafficking in Moscow in July 2020, after a surrogacy-born child died in January 2020 of sudden infant death syndrome under the care of a nurse when its foreign national parents could not enter Russia due to the COVID-19 related travel ban (see BioNews 1058).
After an international arrest warrant was issued for Konstantin Svitnev, CEO of the RosjurConsulting Agency that oversaw the surrogacy arrangement, commercial agencies and fertility doctors have been prompted to act with more caution. For instance, a Russian embryologist commented in personal correspondence that since the surrogacy bill was announced, 'we stopped working with non-traditional patients (I mean single fathers) (…). And we do the surrogate programme only when there are strict medical indications', while an agency manager described their agency '[being] in waiting', meaning they are not facilitating new arrangements while closely monitoring the political landscape.
Co-author of the bill and vice-speaker of the State Duma, Pyotr Tolstoy, said it is a direct response to the COVID-19 lockdown that left over a thousand children born via surrogacy temporarily stranded in Russia when the travel ban prevented non-resident client parents from collecting their children.
According to the Moscow Times, however, the bill's explanatory note also adds that the use of surrogacy by single men and women does not fully comply with the principles of motherhood, childhood and family in Russia. Further, that the practice of surrogacy 'creates a direct and indirect possibility of harming national interests such as posing 'a threat to public and economic security, personal security, and biological security' (Kuznetsova and Gubernatorov 2021). This necessitates the ban of foreigners accessing surrogacy in Russia which would prevent any further export of children born to surrogates in Russia.
Several previous attempts have failed to curtail commercial surrogacy in Russia. In 2013, State Duma deputy Yelena Mizulina called for a ban on surrogacy for fear that it 'threatens mankind with extinction.' In February 2014, Vitaly Milonov, deputy of the Legislative Assembly of St Petersburg, announced his intention for a bill that would ban the use of surrogacy services by single men, and thus, by men in same-sex relationships (as same-sex marriage is not recognised in Russia and only one person in a same-sex relationship can therefore become and be recognised as a parent through surrogacy). In March 2017, Senator Anton Belyakov proposed a bill that would ban all surrogacy in Russia; however in October 2018, the State Duma Committee on Family, Women and Children, firmly rejected the bill.
In light of international developments on surrogacy regulation, the Russian case raises the questions whether the Russian state will take a similar route as India, which at first banned same-sex couples from accessing surrogacy in 2013, and followed this with a ban of commercial surrogacy for all foreigners, restricting access to altruistic surrogacy to heterosexual, married, Indian couples only. While the Indian state reasoned that the ban of commercial and transnational surrogacy would protect Indian surrogates, in Russia, concerns about the commercialisation of surrogacy were never part of the discussion.
Amongst the authors of the Russian bills, and in discussion surrounding them, there is a striking absence of focus on the well being of surrogates in Russia and the impact the bills would have on them. Instead, what is foregrounded in the debate in Russia is firstly, the concern to protect the national interest by ceasing the export of children, and secondly, the protection of traditional Russian family values.
As such, the developments in surrogacy legislation are in accord with the wider demographic and reproductive politics in Russia: the increasing hostility towards and criminalisation of homosexuality and non-heteronormative identities and living arrangements, the (re)orientation towards conservative, regressive family values, and the resulting pressure placed on Russian women and young families to have more children and contribute to demographic growth.
In 2013, Sergei Kalashnikov, head of the Duma's Public Health Committee, even responded to Mizulina's proposal to ban surrogacy by saying that surrogacy could be part of a national strategy to tackle infertility and stop fertility decline.
Both the proposed bill and the current media coverage of it disregard the women who work as surrogates, as well as the often-essential egg providers; instead, they highlight Russia's national interests and hint at the fear that Russia is losing reproductive capacity, as Russian women's reproductive labour is exported elsewhere.
It is impossible to escape the impression that the potential restriction of surrogacy in Russia is less about moving towards a ban of surrogacy, and more about reserving surrogacy for childbirth that is in the national interest, where only the right kind of people are allowed to become parents.