Ukrainian Soldiers Freeze Sperm as a Way to Defy Russia

The couple had dreams of a big family. They would have five children, who would have their father’s mop of curls, his smile and dreamy eyes. They would teach the children how to paint and make pottery and take them on long walks in the forests near their hometown, Sloviansk, in eastern Ukraine.

Then Russia invaded their country, shattering their plans. The husband, Vitaly Kyrkach-Antonenko, volunteered to fight and died on the battlefield when his wife, Nataliya, was three months pregnant with their first child.

Now, still deep in mourning, she says she will not give up their dream. She intends to give siblings to her firstborn. Like hundreds of other Ukrainian soldiers, Vitaly froze his sperm before heading back to battle in the hope that if he did not make it home, he could still pass on his genes.

“Vitaly,” his wife said, “will be the father of all our future children.”

For many Ukrainians, the idea of saving soldiers’ sperm is at once personal and patriotic. It helps men who want to ensure something of themselves remains if they die, and it brings comfort to their partners. In a country now famous for its spirit of resistance, it is also one more way of fighting back. It leaves open the possibility, at least, of preserving Ukrainian bloodlines even as the Kremlin insists that Ukrainian statehood — and by extension Ukrainians as a separate people — is a fiction.

The concept of denying that type of erasure has caught on enough that the Parliament is debating a bill that would allow soldiers to freeze their sperm at the state’s expense.

“This is a continuation of our gene pool,” said Oksana Dmytriieva, the Ukrainian lawmaker who wrote the bill, which has already cleared a hurdle toward passage in an initial vote.

Several clinics have already begun offering the service free, at their own expense. And Ms. Kyrkach-Antonenko has unexpectedly become something of a role model for the cause, using her Facebook page to encourage male soldiers and their wives to give themselves the option of making a family, no matter what happens on the battlefield.

“The modern world allows us to give birth and raise the children of our fallen loved ones — the bravest and most courageous humans in this world,” she wrote. “Raise them worthy of their father, with the same love for Ukraine, and give them the chance to live in the country for which their father shed his blood.”

Such messages of resistance seem to have reached Russia too.

A pro-Kremlin reporter, Olga Skabeeva, said recently on Russian state television that soldiers’ freezing sperm amounted to “genetic experiments to construct a nation.”

“With the help of artificial selection,” she warned, “a whole army of selected Ukrainians with an increased level of Russophobia will be bred.”

Natalya Tolub, a spokeswoman for the IVMED fertility clinic in Kyiv, the capital, said in an email that the reporter’s statements were a sign that the Ukrainians had hit their mark. “Success,” she wrote.

Her clinic, she said, is freezing the sperm of about 10 soldiers every week.

Among them was Yehor, 31, who had been with his girlfriend, Svitlana Braslasvska, 25, for only a few months when they decided to freeze his sperm.

As he headed back to battle last month after a short break, he said that he felt calmer and more fearless than the first time he went. He credited experience, time — and the sperm he left behind in a clinic.

“We are fighting for freedom for our children; we also have the right to have them,” said Yehor, who asked to be identified only by his first name for security reasons. “Doesn’t matter if they will be born in that way, or even after us.”

But he said his interest in freezing his sperm was also “about not decreasing the number of our patriots, people who will later defend, develop and build our country.”

Ms. Braslasvska does not want to think about whether she would opt for assisted reproduction if he did not return, but she said the war had made her think about having children for the first time. She interpreted her new interest as a “physical effect” that the war was having on her, an “impulse to continue our nation.”

Despite Ukrainians’ bravado in the face of adversity, experts say that Ukraine cannot rebuild its population, which was already declining before the war, by using frozen sperm for pregnancies. But Jay Winter, a retired Yale historian, said that wasn’t the point.

By offering not only to die for Ukraine, but also to provide for new life, soldiers were making a statement — showing their commitment to national survival. “And the survival of the Ukrainian nation,” he said, “is what this war is about.”

The exact number of Ukrainian men who have frozen their sperm is hard to come by, but Oleksandr Mykhailovych Yuzko, a doctor and the president of the Ukrainian Association of Reproductive Medicine, said that requests had risen at clinics all over Ukraine.

He said he expected the sperm to be used not only by some widows, but also by women whose husbands suffer injuries — physical or mental — that render them impotent. He said the government needed to do more to help women have soldiers’ children, by paying for assisted reproduction procedures as well.

“The first part is the preservation of reproductive cells,” he said. “The second part is the restoration of the reproductive potential of Ukraine.”

The idea of freezing soldiers’ sperm is not new. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, several cryogenic firms offered the service free to American troops. In Israel, the families of fallen soldiers have gone a step further, fighting to advance a bill that would allow a family to use the sperm taken from a dead soldier’s body for procreation, unless he had previously objected to it. Critics in Israel call the notion planned orphanhood.

Dominic Wilkinson, a professor of medical ethics at Oxford University, said that in his view the rush by some Ukrainian soldiers to freeze their sperm was ethical, so long as both partners agree beforehand that it can be used if the man dies.

“There are many children who have only a single living parent,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that it would be wrong to bring that child into the world.”

Petro Patij, a doctor at a fertility clinic in the Western Ukrainian city of Lutsk, said that many of his clients were still couples coming in for family planning consultations or to solve fertility problems, but he now feels obliged to also ask the men if they would like to freeze their sperm.

“It’s very hard,” said Dr. Patij. “They want to hear something optimistic and you have to propose to them to freeze sperm because one of them might die tomorrow.”

And for some widows, moving on to give birth to their deceased partners’ children is not easy.

Nadiia Lytovchenko is one of those who is struggling.

Last year’s invasion started on her fifth wedding anniversary with her husband, Andrii. By the end of the summer, Mr. Lytovchenko was dead, killed in a Russian ambush, leaving his wife alone with their baby boy — and the sperm he had frozen a few years earlier as he feared an escalation of hostilities with Russia.

“It’s hard to decide and too early to think about using” his sperm, said Mrs. Lytovchenko, who is wrestling with her grief, the financial hardships created by her husband’s death and the reality of raising their child alone.

“But it’s nice to know that you have this possibility,” she said, before pausing. “It’s just nice to know.”

Anastasia Kuznietsova, Natalia Yermak and Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.

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