Theresa Erickson, a high profile Californian attorney specialising in assisted reproduction law (self-styled online and in the media as 'the surrogacy lawyer') pleaded guilty last month to charges relating to her involvement in a baby selling scam. The case has sent shock waves through the US assisted reproduction law community, which is reeling at the disgrace of one of its best known members.
But although the story is shocking, I would hate to think that wider conclusions might be drawn about the way in which commercial surrogacy is practiced (legally) in many US states, or that US surrogacy lawyers in general should not be trusted. As well as being a story about the wrongs, this is a story of ethical boundaries being enforced, and a story of reputable US surrogacy attorneys who ensured that an unethical and illegal scheme was exposed and stopped.
How did the scheme work?
According to news reports and information posted online from those involved, Ms Erickson, working with another lawyer, Ms Neiman, and a third woman, Ms Chambers, recruited 'surrogate mothers' in the USA and arranged for them to travel to the Ukraine where embryos were transferred which had been created with donated eggs and sperm. The birth mothers were assured that this was perfectly legal and was 'just another way of doing surrogacy', and that there was a long list of intended parents waiting for their help.
Once the birth mothers were three months' pregnant then — and only then — would the conspirators advertise for prospective intended parents. The couples who approached them were told, falsely, that intended parents had backed out of a planned surrogacy and that, for a substantial fee, they could step in. Ms Erickson then filed fraudulent papers with the Californian court to enable the parents to be named on the birth certificate. The scheme was said to have been carried out on at least twelve occasions.
What happened to expose the scam?
One of the birth mothers involved, suspecting something was amiss, approached another US assisted reproduction attorney for advice about whether this really was legitimate surrogacy practice. The attorney was concerned and contacted the chair of the American Bar Association's Assisted Reproductive Technology Committee. He approached Ms Erickson to ask her about the scheme (she denied any involvement) and then, with the support of a colleague based in California where Ms Erickson was based, followed his professional duty to report dishonest or criminal conduct, and referred the case to the FBI. Following an investigation, Ms Erickson was charged and pleaded guilty. She is currently awaiting sentencing and faces up to five years in prison.
(I should add that the intended parents involved, all of whom were exonerated of any wrongdoing, have since been legally confirmed as the parents of the children they have, in effect, adopted).
Why was the scheme wrong?
This baby-making scam was so deeply and fundamentally wrong that it is difficult to know where to start. What shocks me the most, I suppose, was the flagrant disregard for all those involved — for the birth mothers who became pregnant on the basis of a lie (and the abuse of trust, relying on the reputation of a well-known lawyer, which that involved), for the intended parents whose desperation was exploited so greedily, and most of all for the preciousness of the lives of the children conceived, not within a loving family, but by design and for profit.
This was not, on anyone's definition, really surrogacy. Under UK law, surrogacy involves artificial conception with the gametes of one or both of the intended parents (which quite obviously has to involve the intended parents from the outset). The rules are different in California, but surrogacy still has to involve an arrangement between specific individuals made before conception. Baby selling or adoption for profit is therefore probably a more accurate categorisation, although of course Ms Erickson was a well known surrogacy lawyer and so those involved were able to 'sell' the scam as surrogacy.
Interestingly, Ms Erickson was ultimately convicted, not of baby selling or any offences directly related to assisted reproduction, but of wire transfer fraud. Given the context, this has the resonance of Al Capone being convicted for tax evasion. However, I suppose it is appropriate that Ms Erickson has been held to account for deception (the scheme had, as I understand it, involved lies to the surrogates, the intended parents and even the Californian court). If the rules are anything like they are in the UK, whether or not she goes to prison, Ms Erickson will never be able to practice law again.
What does this mean for surrogacy lawyers in the USA?
Lawyers hold a very special position of trust and credibility. The essence of legal practice is to help others to comply with the law, and this carries a strict duty of honesty and integrity as well as, obviously, legality. This case is a perfect example of why the professional standards for lawyers are — quite rightly — so high. Would this scheme have been credible to the participants had Ms Erickson not been involved and, crucially, had she not been a well known lawyer? It seems doubtful.
This is, in many ways, an almost science fiction style tale of the creation of life for sale. But it is a strange and unusual case, and I would hate to think that wider conclusions about how surrogacy is practiced in the USA might be drawn from it. I salute the bravery and professionalism of the lawyers who ensured that their dishonest colleague was held criminally accountable — it cannot have been an easy decision. On behalf of them and the many other scrupulous US surrogacy lawyers I have worked with, I say shame on you Ms Erickson.