Theresa Erickson, a well-known and (formally) respected attorney, pled guilty to charges connecting her to an elaborate baby-selling ring last week.
Erickson, along with Maryland attorney Hilary Neiman and surrogate Carla Chambers, recruited gestational carriers to travel to Ukraine, where they were impregnated with embryos created by egg donors and sperm donors, before potential parents were involved. The baby-selling-trio would lie to surrogates, telling them that the original intended parents backed out and they were looking for new parents. In fact, there never were original intended parents.
Once the gestational carriers reached the second trimester, Erickson and co would find intended parents willing to pay $100,000 to $150,000 to step in and purchase the right to have the baby, sort of replacing the fictional original intended parents.
(Legally, should intentional parents back-out of a surrogacy arrangement, the baby would be put up for adoption or kept by the surrogate, if she wished. Also, surrogacy is only legal if the intended parents are arranged and involved before a baby is conceived and transferred to a gestational carrier.)
They sought potential parents and surrogates using the internet, fertility forums and email lists.
Surrogates and parents were assured the entire operation was legal. Because after all, Theresa Erickson was involved, a well-known third-party reproduction attorney who had a radio show, had appeared on TV, had written books, and was praised all over the internet.
There are many victims in this case:
The babies, who will grow up to find out they were conceived, at least in part, to help greedy people make a buck.
The parents, who unwittingly "bought" their babies through an illegal baby-making scheme.
The egg donors and sperm donors, from whom the children were conceived. Who knows what they were told, or if there are additional embryos frozen, waiting for... what?
The surrogates, who carried the babies and in at least one case lost a baby, and who experienced uncertainty and worry when told the original intended parents backed out, and who, in some cases, were never paid for their services.
Those in the infertility community who trusted Erickson, maybe even worked with her or appeared on her radio show, now feeling as though they have been "dirtied" by associating themselves with her, some whose careers may even suffer because of the association.
And the infertility community at large, who will suffer from the backlash this will create against those who need surrogates or third-party reproduction to have a child, and who will experience greater distrust and anxiety over their family building plans.
Because if you can't trust one of the most respected attorneys in third-party-reproduction, if you can't look at a person's accomplishments and professional memberships and board positions as proof that you've found the best, then who can you trust? And how?
Many news sites and bloggers have written on the Erickson scandal, and I'm including the best of those posts at the end of this blog.
What I'd like to talk about is what this scandal says about surrogacy itself and the nature of third party reproduction, and what it says about those associated with Erickson who did not knowingly commit a crime. This is what the media and world-at-large will latch onto, after all.
Surrogacy is already a controversial method of family building, this despite it being the oldest way of having children after infertility. (Think about Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilpah of the Bible, all surrogate mothers.) Negative news like this doesn't do much for our image. Commenters, and even police investigators (like one quoted in an ABC News article), point fingers at the fertility challenged for being desperate for a baby, and therefore, accuse us of faulty decision making.
What I think the Erickson scandal says about third-party reproduction?
Just like foster parents who abuse their foster children and hoard government funds meant for the children in their care say nothing about the thousands of foster parents who lovingly care for the kids in their care.
Just like the abusive parents of the world says nothing about the good parents of the world.
Just like illegal black market adoption of kidnapped children says nothing about legal adoption.
And the Erickson scandal doesn't say anything about those associated with her, who knew nothing about the crimes she was committing.
The only thing the Erickson baby selling ring tells us is that position and reputation do not make a person immune to doing wrong, something I think we all knew but perhaps thought couldn't occur in our community.
We can certainly learn from the experience.
If something seems fishy or unusual, having someone you think is a good person involved doesn't mean much. Ignoring your gut because an influential person or big name is part of a suspicious operation is never a good idea.
We can learn that getting second and third opinions on big time arrangements, like surrogacy or egg donation, is a very good idea.
But we can also learn that bad things happen to good people even when they are cautious and working with good intentions.
We learn that doing good work -- like managing or speaking on a radio show that reaches so many - is still good work, even if later certain people associated with the good work turn out to be traitors and criminals.
Some may want to say that Erickson and co wouldn't have been able to commit their crimes if the parents and surrogates were paying close attention or were asking more people for advice before signing the surrogacy deals.
FBI Special Agent Darrell Foxworth may want to place some blame on the victims, when he said, "This case serves as a reminder to people who are desperate to have a child that you must be cautious."
But I say, even if it's true they maybe could have avoided being duped, that it is completely unfair to place any blame whatsoever on them. They are the victims.
You don't blame a rape victim for walking in a dark alley or wearing a short skirt.
You don't blame family members for not realizing one of their own is a rapist, if they honestly knew nothing about it.
The only people who deserve blame and shame are Theresa Erickson, Hilary Neiman and Carla Chambers -- the ones who knowingly committed crimes, preying on the desire of surrogates to help families and the desire of men and women desperate to become parents.
Unfortunately, the world does not lack bad guys. The good news is that the good guys outnumber the bad guys by huge margins. The infertility community may be hurting from what has happened, but we're going to be ok.
Not just ok, but, hopefully, a little wiser too.
More about the Erickson scandal around the web:
- ABC News: Baby-Selling Enterprise Busted, Three Plead Guilty
- Los Angeles Times: Scam targeted surrogates as well as couples
- Stirrup Queen: My Thoughts on the Theresa Erickson Baby Selling Scandal
- Stirrup Queen: Final Thoughts on Exploitation, Baby Selling, and Theresa Erickson
- Hannah Wept, Sara Laughed: Betraying the Community: My Response to the Theresa Erickson Scandal
- Hannah Wept, Sara Laughed: Moving Beyond the Theresa Erickson Scandal: A Call for Community Healing
- The Fertility Advocate: Made To Order Babies: When Reproductive Medicine Breaks the Law
- The Fertility Advocate: The Voice of The Surrogates in The Theresa Erickson Baby Selling Scandal
- The Fertility Advocate: Legal Questions Answered on The Baby Selling Scheme