I have known Theresa Erickson as a distant colleague for years. She joined the board of directors of The American Fertility Association after I left the organization that I founded as the first Executive Director. So I only really knew her from moments at special events, facebook, a one time appearance on her radio show last year, or through reputation.
Theresa is or was, one of the most prominant, successful, controversial and internationally known reproductive lawyers in the field of egg donation and surrogacy. She also talked about her years as being a egg donor and perhaps a surrogate as well.
I have heard whispers about her for years, that she is overly aggressive in her ambition, or that she was involved in things that she shouldn’t be involved in. But those were whispers - and mostly from her competitors and others in the field of reproductive law. The reproductive medicine community likes to whisper about each other – as perhaps other competitive fields like to whisper about their colleagues – so I always take everything with a grain of salt.
Theresa was to me, a “balls to the wall” kind of girl – posing with a rifle on a shooting range in one facebook profile picture. She radiated self confidence, hard beauty and success. Everywhere you turned in the world of surrogacy and egg donation she was there – even recently running an organic cupcake night at a ritzy private home for The American Fertility Association to talk to prospective recipient couples about the possibility of family building through surrogacy and egg donation.
The whispering grew louder a few weeks ago when Theresa started to resign from her board positions at various patient non-profit organizations and withdraw from speaking engagements. The news on the street was that the FBI was investigating her – and that there was the possibility of a baby selling ring. A baby selling ring? Come on! That had to be a rumor….
Yesterday, it became official as Theresa Erickson plead guilty to a conspiracy charge in what federal prosecutors described, truly as a baby-selling ring. Even though the whispering had been quite loud lately about what was about to hit the news – nothing could prepare the reproductive community for this news – and I can’t imagine the after shocks still to come.
Prosecutors said that Theresa Erickson, was not alone – she worked with two others to create an inventory of at least a dozen unborn babies who they sold to prospective parents for more than $100,000 each.
What Theresa actually did was to use gestational surrogates to create babies through donor eggs and sperm in the Ukrine. These babies had no intended parents or parental agreements around their conception – they were made to be sold. No one was waiting for them to be conceived or born. At least not until Theresa found a buyer.
Once the pregnancies were firmly established (second trimester) – Theresa would approach couples who wanted a baby and told them that the orginal intended parents no longer wanted the baby. The intended parents had no idea of the true conception origins of their baby. According to the reports being widely circulated by the media – Theresa then sold the baby to the new set of intended parents. The intended parents in this case are not in any legal trouble – as they did not know the origin of their babies conception.
Erickson would then submit documents in San Diego Superior Court falsely representing that the babies were products of legitimate surrogate arrangements in an attempt to establish rights for the intended parents, prosecutors said. She and others also misrepresented who the donors were.
California State law allows a woman planning to carry a baby for someone else to enter an agreement with the prospective parents before she becomes pregnant. This is legal, and how the world of gestational surrogacy works. What went wrong here is that the pregnancies had already been established before Erickson and others knew who the true intended parents were going to be.
According to news reports, Erickson pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. She faces a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000, among other penalties, at a hearing scheduled for Oct. 28.
Hilary Neiman, a 32-year-old reproductive law attorney from Maryland, worked with with Erickson – and also pleaded guilty last month in federal court in San Diego to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and faces the same potential sentence as Erickson at an Oct. 14 hearing.
Apparently, authorities were informed of the unlawful activity, which occurred from 2005 to 2011, by another reproductive law attorney and a woman who was a “gestational carrier.”
As reported by various news accounts, and court documents, the baby selling ring operated by Theresa soliciting women to travel overseas to have embryos tranfers created by donor eggs and sperm. These gestational carriers would then be paid between $38,000 to $45,000 for each successful pregnancy that resulted in a live birth.
As I explained above, the babies were then offered up to prospective parents in the second trimester and the new parents were told that the babies had resulted from legitimate surrogate arrangements, but that the original “intended parents” had backed out. The prospective parents were then told they could “assume” the nonexistent surrogate agreements for more than $100,000.
Theresa would then file documents in state court misrepresenting that the babies were products of legitimate surrogate agreements, so that the prospective parents’ names could be placed on the babies’ birth certificates.
Why would she do this? According to news reports and experts – the advantage of the illegal arrangement was that new parents were entitled to immediately take custody of the babies after their births and avoid the uncertainty of an adoption that could not begin until after the child was born.
If the pregnancy was viewed as an adoption – money could not change hands. There would be no profit – and this was a business. In an adoption, the woman carrying the child also cannot profit from her pregnancy but can be compensated for medical expenses. A surrogate can be compensated beyond her medical costs.
So why would Theresa Erickson do this? She had all the trappings of success – I had caught her on “The Today Show” and CNN, she recently published a book ”Assisted Reproduction: The Complete Guide to Having a Baby with the Help of a Third Party, she had a happy marriage (I saw the pictures of Paris with her handsome hushand on facebook) and she has a beautiful family.
To answer with the word “Greed” seems too simplistic – and I will not even pretend to know what happens to people when power over comes them. We see it in so many parts of our world. What I choose to do instead by telling this story – is to try to reassure prospective parents who work with agencies and reproductive lawyers – that most of them work very hard every day to ensure the integrity of Third Party Reproduction. The fact is, it seems – that a colleague tipped off the authorities.
Every day women stand up to be egg donors and gestational surrogates for infertile couples, individuals, and gay men who want to be parents. They are wanting to help these prospective families be born – and they need the help of reproductive lawyers, egg donor agencies, gestational surrogates and fertility doctors to do this. It can feel overwhelming to all sides of the baby making team. That is why there are checks and balances – guidelines and laws.
Yesteday, members of our reproductive community got caught breaking the law in a manner that has left so many of us speechless and sad. The world of reproductive medicine is one that is based on trust and integrity – and I know that the field is today filled with outrage and confusion – with so many of us asking the question why?
And I can’t help but think of Theresa Erickson, and her family today. The devastation and fear that must be in their hearts as well. I can’t help but feel compassion for their pain even in the wake of this betrayal to our community.