In the community of parents who have their children through surrogates and egg donation, Theresa Erickson was a star.
The well-known attorney with a practice in Poway is one of a small number of lawyers in California to specialize in reproductive law. She promoted her work on television and radio shows, online, and in newspaper and magazine articles.
“She was just incredibly visible,” said Pam Madsen, a New York-based fertility coach who described Erickson as a colleague and acquaintance. “She projected success.”
So it came as a shock to her supporters and others in the fertility community when Erickson pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court to a conspiracy charge in what was described as a baby-selling scheme. Federal prosecutors in San Diego said Erickson and others sold a dozen unborn babies to prospective parents for $100,000 each.
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According to prosecutors, Erickson and others solicited women to travel to the Ukraine — where medical costs are much lower — to be implanted with embryos on the promise that they would be paid $38,000 to $45,000 for each full-term pregnancy.
If the women reached the second trimester of their pregnancies, the babies were offered to prospective parents who were led to believe that the original “intended parents” had backed out.
California law allows a woman who plans to carry a baby for someone else to enter a surrogate arrangement before she becomes pregnant, not after. Doctors in the United States are unlikely to transfer an embryo without legal documents naming the intended parents.
Prosecutors said Erickson submitted documents in San Diego Superior Court falsely representing that the babies resulted from legitimate surrogate agreements, so that the new parents’ names could be listed on the birth certificates.
San Marcos lawyer Stephanie Caballero, whose clients include intended parents, donors and surrogates, said Erickson has always been highly focused on her work.
“Most of the people and colleagues I know are shocked, appalled and saddened by this,” Caballero said. “It’s not a good moment for surrogacy.”
Tom Pinkerton, a reproductive law attorney, said he has known Erickson for at least a decade and has long considered her a dedicated and compassionate advocate for surrogate issues.
Pinkerton, who with his wife, Darlene, owns A Perfect Match in La Mesa, which links up infertile families with surrogates and egg donors, said he is also puzzled by why Erickson or anyone in the business would run this risk when the financial advantage is not that great.
“It’s hard for me to understand what happened, and if it happened, what the advantage was,” Pinkerton said. “Even it was $100,000 — if that’s what it actually was — that’s not far off from what parents pay anyway.”
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Erickson, who is married and has children, has also hosted the weekly “The Surrogacy Lawyer Radio Show” and written two books, “Assisted Reproduction: The Complete Guide to Having a Baby with the Help of a Third Party” and “Surrogacy and Embryo, Sperm & Egg Donation: What Were You Thinking?”
Madsen, who has been in the fertility industry for more than 20 years and appeared on Erickson’s radio show, said she heard rumors that the FBI was investigating Erickson but didn’t trust them.
“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,” Madsen wrote in an online blog. “But those were whispers — mostly from her competitors and others in the field of reproductive law.”
Investigators were tipped to the scheme by another reproductive law attorney and a woman who agreed to carry a baby for someone else, prosecutors said. Also charged in the case were Hilary Neiman, 32, a lawyer from Chevy Chase, Md., and Carla Chambers, 51, a “gestational carrier” who solicited women to carry babies for other people.
3 months ago