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Talking, writing, educating, and change making in the field of fertility for more than twenty years

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.

About Pam Madsen
Talking, writing, educating and change making in the field of fertility for more than twenty years
16 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. The fertility industry has many dirty little secrets. Stories like this are just the tip of the iceberg.

  2. Wow. I agree that Erickson’s family needs compassion. But beyond that, what about compassion for the children who were created to go to families that aren’t their biological families? Don’t think this is the only case of commodifying children. It happens every time a child is created artificially on purpose for someone other than the biological family to take home with them. Who is protecting those children?

  3. I appreciate your conclusion, “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.”
    No matter what what she did, we can’t forget that there is a family in chaos right now. Theresa is also a very committed wife and mother…I can’t even begin to comprehend what she and her family are going through.
    Thank you for a well written piece, but thank you also for reminding us that compassion for the offender and her family does not mean we are supporting or agreeing with the offender’s actions.

  4. Dear Stephanie,

    I am sorry Stephanie – but I don’t believe that it is evil to create children through donor means. I have not read your blog – but I understand through your title that you are searching for your biological father – and it is a source of great pain for you.

    Each donor child’s experience is unique – and I am not going to go there – except to say thank you for sharing your voice and your experience here.

    My compassion for any children, intended parents, and surrogates that are involved with this truly sad situation I would have hoped would have been implicit in this blog – and of course comes first. After that – I do have compassion for the pain of Theresa Erickson’s family – and yes – Theresa herself.

    Again, thank you for reading – and for commenting.

    Pamela

  5. Dear Darlene,

    Thank you for understanding my comments – that is it exactly!

    And thank you for taking the time to comment,
    Pamela

  6. Hi Pam,

    I have a hard time using the word “evil” – I even struggle with calling it “sinful” even though, as a Christian, I don’t typically have a problem using that word. Let’s call a spade a spade, right?

    And you are right – every donor conceived person is going to have their own experience, even within the same family. But I’m afraid that a dissenting voice is never heard. I freely admit that I love my dad – my mother’s husband – as much as any child would love their parent. And yet I still miss my biological father and all of the half-siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and even nieces and nephews that I’m missing out on. And they don’t know me or my children. This is my concern with donor conception; children are separated from their biological families, and with that separation often comes issues of identity and abandonment.

    Thanks for posting this article with your thoughts on Theresa Erickson. You are right – the family often suffers when a member does something wrong, and they tend to get forgotten.

    Stephanie

  7. Pamela, I know we are on each other’s periphery on the social media sphere, but I’m absolutely devastated, sad, and embarrassed for her. Your post here is the first I’ve heard about ANY of this with Theresa; I had wondered if something was going on when I noticed her website was down last week and I hadn’t heard much about her radio show lately.

    Thank you for this piece and sharing your thoughts; I’m collecting my own and plan to write about it this evening for publication tomorrow. I’ll link back to your post.

    Just unbelievable.

  8. This entire incident has left me with more questions then answers. Who were these surrogates? What were they told? What did they know? Were they lied to as well about who their IP’s were? Then told while pregnant that the unborn child they carried was rejected by IPs! What kind of stress and heartache was brought on the surrogates shoulders (Not to mention their families) until the time where they were “rematched”? I can’t even think of not having the choice of who I would be carrying for because of a false desperation brought on to me because of a crime like this. And now it’s hit the news and there are no less then 12 surrogates out there wondering what happened to their act of kindness, generosity, of life. Really, for me, its unthinkable and unbelievable.

  9. Wow, thanks for the over all explanation, but this goes so much deeper. I wonder who in the Ukraine one sends girls too, just to be inseminated. Why send them all the way over there?? Don’t answer, I already know why.
    My biggest worry is about all the children,,,hope someone is keeping records because one day some of them are going to come looking for their biological ties.
    Producing babies for the purpose of gaining funds is sick. Playing God is worse. These people can’t seem to see past the end of their nose.

  10. I have personally known Theresa Erickson since 1998. She reviewed contracts with our surrogates for 5 years, but due to our competing agencies, we have not kept in touch. Even though I cannot say I feel bad for Theresa or her family, I can definitely say, I was shocked and saddened to hear the news. I would have never expected HER to do this. However, what she has done was wrong, plain and simple. It was not accidental, it was a well devised, carried out plan that her and her family have profited from for over 6 years. When someone breaks the law, they should be punished, but for a successful, dedicated attorney to commit these crimes, it goes against everything the public believe attorneys stand for, especially reproductive law attorneys. Being apart of the creation of life and helping a family have a child through surrogacy or egg donation is such a rewarding career, it just doesn’t make any sense. People are taught to trust their attorney, that their attorney is there to watch out for their best interest. Theresa did not need to do this, what was the benefit? Plain and simple, it had to be greed! Theresa had a successful and well-known law firm, an agency (Conceptual Options) that was among the top agencies in California, book sales and a reputation that was greater than many other agencies in California, maybe even in the entire United States. She has dedicated her life to her career, to making sure her name, face and businesses were known around the world. It sickens me that she was carrying out this plan for years and no one even knew. What she has done to the surrogacy community is a travesty, it’s something we may never recover from. How dare her act so unprofessional and bring about this media mess to all of us who have worked so hard for years to maintain a professional, honest and solid reputation. The sacrifice we put in, the time we give up with our husbands and children to build a reputable business, only now to be scrutinized by the media and possibly undergo legislative changes due to her bad judgement and illegal behavior. I just don’t understand people anymore, all of these agencies doing illegal things, stealing clients money and disappearing. I certainly didn’t get into this industry for the money, but when you are successful and have money, how much is ever enough? Clearly, in this case Theresa felt the need to profit from lying to surrogates, lying to potential parents and lying to the professionals she knew or worked with. What kind of a message is this giving surrogates? If surrogates can’t trust attorneys to watch out for them through a surrogacy how can they ever trust agencies? This whole situation is going to deter women from becoming surrogates out of fear and then who really suffers? The childless couples who just want to be parents, that’s who.

    It really is a sad day in the surrogacy world and it leaves me wondering how the impact of Theresa’s actions are going to affect all of us. I just hope justice is done and that she not be allowed to practice law anymore. The oath she took after passing the bar was severely breached by her actions and even those who are her friends should understand what type of message it sends the public if a crime like this goes unpunished.

  11. Theresa Erickson was my lawyer for 2 of my 3 surrogacies….I am shocked and appalled to say the least!! This same experience happened to a friend and fellow surrogate!! We felt at the time that it was a scam but had no proof….It was very stressful for my friend at the time as she was pregnant with twins. We as surrogates care about the babies we carry. When my friend was told the intended parents backed out it put a lot of stress on her. The babies did get a home but the experience was not as happy for her as it should have been…I had much respect for Theresa and am saddened that surrogacy may be tarnished by this type of horrific practice.

  12. Unfortunately, this is horrible news for the industry; however, as an insider to the ART industry and parent of twins that I had through the legal assistance of Theresa Erickson and other professionals; persons with half an idea of what happened here need to also consider that this may just be that a few greedy people used a generous and caring individual that was at the forefront of this industry to work under to hide their devious plans.
    One thing to think about is that she too has a story and unfortunately cannot share it due to the pending sentencing, but the truth about the involvement shall be told in time as she stated in the lone statement made thus far by Mrs. Erickson.
    Many that jump on the band wagon and go out on a witch hunt for a person that has helped create thousands of families over the years may want to wait to judge her. Has anyone thought that this whole situation may be a case of her taking the plea to protect those thousands of legitimate families that were created from having their personal lives dragged out into the public forum? I know I would be highly upset to have my private life dragged through the public eye and have judgmental people ridiculing my wife and I for using not only a sperm donor and egg donor, but for using a surrogate too; all years after my family was created. Yes, we were in an arrangement based out of San Diego with all parties (egg donor, sperm donor and surrogate) all through different agencies/companies that were local along with the fertility Dr. I am sure many would want to ridicule me as well since neither my wife nor I are genetically related to our children, yet we love them more than life itself and don’t care that the DNA doesn’t match ours. My children know who their parents are and know they are the center of our lives and are very much loved. Oh, and by the way, the final amount spent in achieving my family was not around $100k. We spent well over $150K and gave up keeping track there. When doing the math, Surrogate, Egg Donor, Sperm Donor, Insurance for our surrogate, IVF Fees (the most expensive part of the whole arrangement), agency fees (for merely matching you with your egg donor, surrogate and sperm donor) and attorney fees, it’s easy to surpass $100K. My only thought on this is where is this profit to make it worth it for an attorney that had a thriving firm with hundreds of clients a year that would pay her for the legal side which is by far the cheapest part of the whole arrangement (yet also the most important)?
    As far as the other codefendants, it is my understanding that one was a serial surrogate that was not physically capable of being a surrogate any longer due to her own reproductive health issues and turned into a “coordinator” that bounced around with residences inside and outside the US while the other (who was also a well known attorney in the ART field) was also a major part of the arrangements and from what it sounds like from individuals closely related was a key person and instrumental in the early stages of these questionable arrangements.
    Also, they say one of the whistle blowers was a competitor… hmmm kind of odd that a competitor would do so something like this without their own personal interests involved since everyone is saying Theresa was the top attorney in the field and known for such around the world. I’m sure they only had the best intentions in mind and in no way thought about how they may benefit from trying to take down the top attorney in the country.
    So far the story in the media has changed multiple times from when they first got wind of it Tuesday afternoon. The FBI and AG have only made limited statements without giving any details of the plea agreement and only list the charges and potential maximum penalties. As anyone with limited legal knowledge may know… charges are basically a list of elements and criteria that must be met before charging a person with a crime. No one said she was indicted. She merely pled guilty and it is typical that there should have been a statement of facts in support of the plea. To not be indicted or have her office raided, she must have been very forthcoming with the FBI and was very cooperative as to her role (if any in the scheme).
    I am looking forward to hearing the full story and not contributing to the hysteria that the internet message boards and blogs are doing to fuel the fire that the media has set. All of these people that are uninvolved or not knowing the industry and/or facts involved are achieving by voicing their opinions are what is making everything worse for everyone else that do business in the ART industry and those families that were built through the amazing work of an ENTIRE team of professionals that make such a thing possible.
    The media loves to report on juicy topics and tend to stretch a 2 line statement into a 2 page story of unverified statements or ideas. I believe this is what’s happening here. Just stop for a second and look at how much new information is coming out since Tuesday? None… except people looking for face time on camera or to create mass hysteria with their OMG’s and I knew she was shady without even knowing the true person/ professional that has helped so many. I must say this as well to all the people writing without any purpose than to just gossip… bloggers do not have the greatest credibility either since they just type whatever they feel or believe and in most cases don’t go out and obtain the facts before posting something that could be damaging to the industry they are so-called “trying to protect.”

  13. Dear Stephanie – My reply to your comment is not to defend the actions of anyone, any party, or what’s happened in this circumstance or situation. In fact, my head is still reeling regarding all of this.

    However, I am going to say that I firmly believe in my the depths of who I am that those children who were placed with those waiting parents who have probably gone to hell and back in their attempt to become parents are going to be deeply loved, cared for, and nurtured their entire lives.

    I don’t believe for two seconds any of these children that were born were placed in bad families. And I want to be very clear that genetics don’t make a family.

    Do I feel what’s happened is wrong? Absolutley, but the parents involved I am sure were doing what any parents who wants a family does, which was attempt to have their family, and I am sure they thought they were going about it the right way.

    My child is from egg donation Stephanie and he is not artifical.

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