Theresa Erickson, a well-known LA-area lawyer specializing in ART, pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud yesterday for her operation of what was essentially a baby-selling ring. I don’t have anything to say in her defense (note that she did plead guilty–it isn’t simply that she was charged), but the details of how the operation worked are interesting. Erickson and her two co-conspirators essentially exploited the potential of globalized surrogacy to create babies who could then be sold.
Here is how it worked, as far as I can tell. First, you recruit a surrogate. There are lots of places where that is perfectly lawful. The surrogate was then sent to the Ukraine, where embryos created from third-party eggs and sperm were transferred to her uterus.
What’s striking here is the step that is missing–there are no intended parents (IPs) at this point. The way surrogacy usually works, even if third-party eggs and sperm are used, the embryos are created for and then transferred for specified intended parents who have been identified and entered into various contracts. Thus, the child that is created is essentially pre-assigned to someone. Not so here.
And this is why the surrogates were sent the the Ukraine. Apparently in the Ukraine, the embryo transfers were performed without any proof of the existence of IPs being required. No clinic in the US would do this. (I’m guessing I could say the same of most countries.)
Once the surrogates were pregnant, Erickson and her cohorts shopped the babies. Prospective parents were told that a planned adoption had fallen through and that for payment of $100,000-$150,000 they could adopt the children. (The surrogates were apparently paid between $38,000 and $40,000.) The criminal charges stem from various fraudulent documents that were presented in California to make this whole scheme work.
A long time ago I wrote about the distinctions that could be drawn between adoption and surrogacy. (I cannot find the post right now. Sorry.) Obviously adoption and surrogacy are alternative approaches to the same end–obtaining a child to raise. Adoption places already existing children. By contrast, with surrogacy children are created for specified people–the IPs.
This scheme looks like surrogacy from one side (the surrogate’s–no surprise there) and adoption from the other (the prospective parents’). It’s a way of creating children who can be placed for adoption–because it is clear from before conception that the surrogate doesn’t want to raise them. In other words, children are produced for sale. That’s pretty appalling. It may not be quite as bad as the Nigerian baby-selling ring that essentially enslaved women, but it’s bad.
It also highlights some of the issues raised by globalization. The Ukraine seems to be a total outlier here. Many countries permit surrogacy and, as you can see from earlier posts if you poke around a bit, many people go overseas in order to pursue surrogacy. They leave countries with restrictive laws and travel to those with permissive ones. But as far as I know, the major destination countries ALL require that there be intended parents. Thus, they aren’t suitable destinations for someone with this scheme in mind. But the world is a big place and there’s potentially a lot of money at stake here. Maybe it isn’t surprising that some country–it just happens to be the Ukraine–would set the bar this low.
This story, disturbing as it is, does not lead me to reject surrogacy overall. It does, however, highlight the perils of surrogacy and globalization. I can see various avenues to try to get a handle on this–perhaps advocacy of some uniform base-line standards in law (like there must always be IPs identified), perhaps serious sanctions for those who exploit the variations in law that now occur. It’s certainly food for thought.