Courtesy Natalia Kyrkach-Antonenko
Natalia says that Vitalina is becoming more and more like her father, both in appearance and emotional expressions.
Kyiv CNN  — 

When Natalia Kyrkach-Antonenko’s husband Vitalii was killed on the frontlines fighting Russia, she was 13 weeks pregnant with their daughter, Vitalina.

Despite his death, Kyrkach-Antonenko found some new meaning, hope and purpose with the birth of their child.

“My child is my whole life now. By taking care of my daughter, in a sense, I continue to take care of my husband. This is his continuation. Our continuation.”

The couple had always planned to have a large family, even after Vitalii joined the army in the run-up to Putin’s 2022 invasion.

After having a pregnancy that failed to develop in the opening days of the war – which she attributes to the stress of the invasion – Kyrkach-Antonenko and her husband decided to freeze his sperm. In his brief interludes away from the frontline, she ended up falling pregnant with Vitalina before they eventually managed the cryofreezing.

After his death in November 2022, Kyrkach-Antonenko didn’t hesitate to pursue using her husband’s frozen sperm for a further child.

She was shocked to discover that legally she wasn’t allowed to use the sperm after her husband’s death, despite having his written permission.

That should soon change.

The Ukrainian parliament passed legislation in February to allow and fund the use of soldiers’ frozen sperm in case of their death. Once President Volodymyr Zelensky signs the bill into law, it will for the first time allow the widows of Ukrainian soldiers to use their dead partners’ reproductive cells – both sperm and eggs - to have children.

It will also enable wounded soldiers to use their preserved reproductive cells to have children where their injuries would normally make that impossible.

Natalia Kyrkach-Antonenko
Vitalii was very happy to hear the news of his wife's pregnancy, which caught him while he was relocating from one frontline spot to another.
Natalia Kyrkach-Antonenko
Vitalii joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces at the beginning of the full-scale invasion and was immediately deployed to a hotspot in the Donetsk region.

Additionally, the state will pay to store these frozen cells for three years after a male or female soldier’s death, with clauses specifically recognizing the deceased biological parent on the child’s birth certificate. Currently, the government will pay for the initial freezing of reproductive cells.

Cryopreservation has been an “urgent but difficult issue” MP Olena Shulyak, co-author of the bill, said in a post on Telegram.

The reality is that the military, whose normal life and plans were interrupted by the war, often did not have time to leave behind their progeny,” she said.

It’s a law that will likely benefit many.

Ukraine’s battlefield losses are a closely guarded secret but US officials estimates some 70,000 soldiers have been killed and nearly twice that number wounded.

This legislation may go some way to providing a lifeline for families beyond the grave.

Kyrkach-Antonenko plans to use her husband’s sperm to have at least one more child: a playmate for Vitalina. It’s what her husband wanted, she said.

“He was fighting for the hope that we would have a family,” Kyrkach-Antonenko said of Vitalii.

Protection of soldiers’ chance to have families has long been on the minds of some Ukrainians.

Iryna Feskova, a fertility doctor at a Kharkiv reproductive center “SANA MED”, has offered free freezing and storage of reproduction cells for soldiers since the very first months of the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022.

“This is our contribution to the victory and to the reproductive future of Ukraine,” Feskova told CNN.

The possible injury to soldiers’ reproductive organs and trauma affecting the quality of sperm make cryopreservation of reproductive cells worthwhile, she told CNN, mentioning allegations of castration.

Feskova said interest in cryopreservation among soldiers has boomed since 2022, from a handful before to dozens of people a year. She said her clinic currently stores sperm from dozens of servicemen, while other clinics hold hundreds of samples.

‘Worthy child of Ukraine’

While cryopreservation may not be a taboo subject in Ukraine, it’s certainly a novel one, given newfound prominence by the war.

Fertility doctor Feskova said that her clinics works to spread awareness of cryopreservation – which is working – but the numbers that have taken it up suggest it’s still far from universal.

Support for cryopreservation should come from society, one soldier with the call sign “Iron” told CNN.

“There should be an encouraging message from society that it is necessary to do this, that it is normal,” he said.

“You are a good soldier, you have shown that you are a worthy son or daughter of Ukraine, so leave your descendants behind,” he added.

“Iron” put his and his wife’s plans to have a family on hold when he joined up following the 2022 invasion. While he likes the idea of cryopreservation, he has asked his wife to find happiness and a family with another man if the worst happens.

“We are at the front not for ourselves, but for the future, for our descendants,” he said.

03:08 - Source: CNN
'Here we won't hear anything' Ukrainian children forced underground for safety

Currently, most of the clients the fertility doctor Feskova sees are men, but she expects more and more women to opt for cryopreservation as the war drags on.

There’s been a 20% increase in the number of women in the Ukrainian armed forces in both military and civilian roles since war with Russia began in the eastern Donbas region in 2014, according to Ukraine’s Armed Forces Personnel Center.

As the  Ukrainian army has lifted any restrictions on the appointment and service of women soldiers in all positions (including combat), women are at a greater risk than ever of death and injury on the frontlines.

Mariia, 25, a Ukrainian soldier, is considering cryopreservation of her eggs now that the law is being passed.

She is currently on maternity leave and her husband is serving in the armed forces too.

“We live in a very uncertain time and my husband and I are thinking about having a second child later. We want to have this option if something happens,” she said of cryopreservation.

“It is a memory, a tribute to those fallen heroes who defend the country. They have the right and dignity to be reborn in their children,” she said.

With civilian and military losses and refugees abroad, Ukraine has, she said, a “demographic problem.”

Kyrkach-Antonenko’s husband Vitalii, a volunteer in a local defense unit before the 2022 invasion, who signed up to the army the week before Putin invaded, told her he somehow knew that he wouldn’t survive the war.

“I knew his character, that he would save people, not hide, he was very positive, heroic,” she said of her husband.

With his daughter Vitalina – and perhaps more children in the future – she said, “In a sense, it’s as if he’s still alive, his life goes on, he has children, something exists after his death. It’s not like a person just disappeared, was buried and forgotten.”

As Ukrainians fights for the life of their country, the births made possible by this new law herald a new future:, though one tinged with sadness.

“It is joy,” Kyrkach-Antonenko said, “joy through the prism of grief.”