Planning for a family, and preparing for the worst

Iryna and her husband Oles, from just outside the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, had been eager to start a family. But Russia's invasion had intervened, and then the 29-year-old couple got the news that in January, Oles would be deployed to Ukraine's eastern front. That was when they made a choice: Oles would join the growing list of soldiers who freeze their sperm to ensure they can become fathers ― no matter what happens.

Contingency plan

The decision to use cryopreservation was the best one under the circumstances, says Iryna, who asked that we only use her first name. "I live alone now, and my husband was sent to the frontline," she says, adding that the couple had confronted the possibility of "what might happen" to him.

"It's better to have this than don't have it at all. If the war didn't happen ... it would be different [but] we have such a situation now and we can try the best we can."

Iryna says cryopreservation was the best option under the circumstances.

An increasingly popular choice

Other Ukrainian couples are thinking the same way. More than 100 soldiers have frozen their sperm at the medical center IVMED in Kyiv since last May, when the clinic offered to waive the cost of cryopreservation for soldiers. More are signing up for the service.

The clinic freezes the sperm in liquid nitrogen at around minus 200 degrees Celsius, then stores them in tanks deep inside the building, where they are protected from missile strikes.

The sperm is stored in frozen liquid nitrogen inside tanks.

The chief doctor at the clinic, Halyna Strelko, is philosophical about the choice her clients make. "For them, it's important to understand that if something happened with the husband, for example [if he dies], he will not disappear totally," she says, because a part of him will "stay" in his children.

Dr. Strelko notes that single men are also using the service. She says many worry that even if they survive the conflict, they'll be left with wounds or other physical problems that make it impossible to conceive.

Dr. Halyna Strelko

Population decline

Beyond the deeply personal element, there's a broader aspect to the clinic's work. Even before the invasion, the birthrate in Ukraine was declining, dropping from roughly 1.5 babies per woman in 2012 to about 1.2 in 2020. The conflict is expected to drag that figure down further. As a result, it's estimated that Ukraine's population will fall from just over 40 million now to below 35 million in 2030.

Ukraine's population is expected to plunge.

Ella Libanova, the director of the Ptoukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, says the low birthrate is not the only problem. Another factor is the number of people who have fled the country to escape the war.

"The longer the hostilities last, the fewer people will return to Ukraine," she says. "That's because, firstly, they will adapt to their new locations. Secondly, the economy and infrastructure of Ukraine will suffer even greater destruction, so they simply will have nowhere to come back to. Thirdly, most families will be reunited not in Ukraine but abroad."

Demographer Ella Libanova

Unsurprisingly, the looming demographic crisis is not top priority in Ukraine's halls of power. The clinic's Dr. Strelko says she understands that the country's leaders are preoccupied with military strategy, but she's hopeful they will eventually confront the population issue by incorporating cryopreservation into national policy. "Maybe it (her clinic's free cryopreservation service) will help just a little," she says. "But anyway [it will] help to overcome this problem."

Link to our TV report on this issue: Planning for a family, preparing for the worst