Georgia’s government wants to put to bed a booming business in international surrogacy.
For more than two decades, the post-Soviet Caucasus nation has been on a short list of countries that allows both “altruistic” and consumer surrogacy, including for foreign biological parents, at costs that are a fraction of those in wealthier places.
But Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili announced on June 12 that a draft law is in the works to more tightly regulate surrogacy, when a woman carries and gives birth to a baby with no genetic relation, and in vitro fertilization (IVF). He warned of the fertility sector’s “direct-order” character, the offer of a “so-called ‘sophisticated business'” to “our” Georgian women, and a risk that such children might be destined for same-sex parents abroad.
“There is information that same-sex couples may take the children born here, and there can be a lot of problems,” Gharibashvili said, without elaborating.
The Health, Labor, and Social Affairs Ministry’s current text for the draft law would exclude commercial surrogacy by limiting the practice to the “principle of altruism only,” and would bar Georgian women from carrying and delivering babies for foreign biological parents after 2023.
Representatives of surrogacy and egg-donation agencies operating in Georgia expressed “shock” at Gharibashvili’s plan, although they knew the ministry had been working on draft legislation concerning the sector for over a year. They also questioned the prime minister’s stated rationale for the foreign ban, saying safeguards are already in place to limit Georgian surrogacy to male-and-female parents.
“I don’t know where [Gharibashvili] got his information from,” Natia Janadze, head of the international department at the private ReproART clinic and general manager of IVF Tours Georgia, told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. “The issue of the adoption of a child by a same-sex couple is definitely not on the agenda, and it certainly can’t be the reason for banning the provision of services to foreign couples.”
The current Culture, Sports, and Youth Minister Thea Tsulukiani ordered an amendment to Georgian law in 2020 that tightened the approval processes for IVF births. At the time, Tsulukiani said the move was intended to further limit the process to “a man and a woman” and to “prevent the transnational crime of baby trafficking” and prevent surrogacy in Georgia from falling prey to “sexual exploitation, torture, inhumane treatment” and “to prevent fictitious couples who create a child through surrogacy for criminal purposes” from taking them abroad. She said companies “make millions” through what she described as a form of “organized crime.”
Analysts have pointed to a rise in the influence and visibility of activism linked to the ultraconservative Georgian Orthodox Church, which has challenged LGBT rights and perceived affronts to traditional family values on religious grounds. In some cases, the church’s teachings have tracked closely with government talking points.
Janadze’s agency has coordinated around 1,000 surrogacy births since 2014, and she acknowledged that strict regulation is in the interest of both the ministry and the industry. But she expected changes to the law to mostly align Georgian legislation with corresponding laws elsewhere and didn’t foresee the foreigner ban.
“We were expecting that the draft law would be ready by fall, but unfortunately this sudden departure shocked us,” Janadze said the day after Gharibashvili’s statement. “We are still waiting for something else, and we continue to face a different reality.”
Janadze has estimated that around 95 percent of her clients are foreigners, including from Israel, China, the United States, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Canada, Australia, Greece, Spain, or India.
Same-sex couples are already strictly prevented by law from taking children born to Georgian surrogates out of the country, she said, since the process is limited to married or cohabitating male-female couples, with notarization requirements to prove it.
Health, Labor, and Social Affairs Minister Zurab Azarashvili has insisted that the “principle of altruism” be regulated under the law, but the ministry has mostly been silent on how it should be defined. Azarashvili also acknowledged a demographic component in the debate, citing laws on surrogacy and IVF as “opportunities” to address a declining population in a country of under 4 million.
Janadze cited questions about how the proposed introduction of a “selfless principle” will affect surrogate mothers’ fees if the draft law is adopted in its current form.
Surrogates should receive “logical” compensation for their time and work, she said, “but because the demand for surrogate mothers will decline because of the ban on such services for foreign couples, at their expense, I can tell you that the amount of compensation will decline.”
Surrogates generally earn between $17,000 and $23,000 for carrying a fetus to term, slightly more for twins, according to industry experts. They say the vast majority of women who enter into such contracts are struggling financially.
Worldwide Differences On Surrogacy
Ever since the success in 1985 in the United States of the world’s first gestational surrogacy, only a small group of countries have legalized commercial surrogacy. Many countries have made all forms of surrogacy illegal, while others allow noncommercial surrogacy under
Georgia’s first successful gestational surrogacy was completed in 2007, a decade after it became one of the first countries in the world to pass laws permitting third-party reproduction. So far, it has allowed both commercial and so-called altruistic surrogacy, in which the surrogate receives care and related expenses but no further payment.
The numbers of babies born to surrogate mothers in Georgia and then taken abroad is not known. Georgia’s Justice Ministry has previously referred RFE/RL questions about the issue to the Interior Ministry, which said it doesn’t compile statistics on border crossings “of children born through surrogacy in Georgia.”
‘We Take This Step Because Things Are Difficult For Us’
For some women planning to be surrogates, the draft law is a worrying development.
“Who will agree to be a surrogate mother if we no longer get more or less adequate remuneration?” said Maya, a 31-year-old woman with two young children of her own. “We take this step because things are difficult for us.”
She said her husband is gone and she works multiple jobs but is practically penniless after paying rent. Her first effort at surrogacy was supposed to earn her around $18,000 but ended prematurely.
She plans to try again. However, she said, now she’ll wait until at least January 2024 because it’s unclear to her what the ministry’s idea of remuneration based on the “principle of altruism” will be.
“A lot depends on the amount that I should receive as a result of surrogacy,” she said. “The welfare of my children comes first. It would be nice to live in a country where women agreed to surrogacy only for charitable purposes, but unfortunately we don’t live in such a country.”
Georgia has seen relatively strong economic growth for much of the past decade, aside from a lean year following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Tbilisi accelerated its bid for EU membership shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. But its official candidacy has been complicated by the bloc’s concerns at perceived backsliding on democracy and the rule of law, as well as the ruling Georgian Dream party’s reluctance to join Western sanctions against Russia.
Two years ago, 30-year-old Eka earned $20,000 as a surrogate for biological parents from China. A mother of three, she wants to do it again, in hopes of buying an apartment. She told RFE/RL that “you can’t earn that kind of money by working as a consultant, or by working in a beauty salon, or doing cleaning.” She also said she’s heard the guidelines for paid surrogacy are going to be changing.
“Around me, women agree to surrogacy only because they need money,” she said. “Otherwise, who’s happy to be pregnant for nine months when you already have three or four children of your own?”
There are similar questions coming from the other side of the surrogacy equation, too: the people hoping to become parents.
Speculation has been rife on social media that once foreigners are denied the service in Georgia, the cost of paying someone to carry and deliver a baby will fall. But that could be overly optimistic.
The Indian government’s decision to pull the plug in 2015 on a nearly $400 million-a-year commercial surrogacy trade frequently used by foreigners was blamed for “killing” the domestic surrogate market completely.
In Georgia, 35-year-old Salome learned about six months ago that a health issue prevents her from maintaining a pregnancy. After seeing several specialists, she said, her doctor recommended that she try a surrogate.
“He was surprised” that she was receptive to the idea, she said. “We don’t even offer Georgian couples to have a child this way because they actually don’t have the financial means to do so.”
Her husband has Swedish citizenship, though, and Salome said they’re now worried they will be ineligible for surrogacy services under any new legislation. And even if they were permitted to have a child through surrogacy in Georgia, she wondered, could they take that child outside the country?
Salome is already undergoing medical treatment to provide an embryo for another woman to carry to term, she said.
“We were planning that the embryo would be implanted and a child would be born with the help of a surrogate mother in 2024,” she said. “Now, it turns out that we need to hurry and quickly find a surrogate mother so that the surrogacy can take place before the beginning of January 2024.”
She noted that surrogacy is banned in Scandinavian countries, including Sweden.
“So, since we had the opportunity for it in Georgia, we wanted to use this option. But now we don’t know what will happen or how it will be.”