Family Matters

Baby-Selling Scam Focuses Attention on Surrogacy

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Thanks to surrogates, thousands of people have become parents. Each arrangement takes into account a swirl of complex details: whose genetic material will be implanted in the surrogate; how it will be transferred; where the surrogate — should she get pregnant — will give birth; how much she will be paid for her role in carrying another couple’s child.

It also presumes that a contract will be in place before a surrogate is impregnated. But now, two noted fertility attorneys and a surrogacy coordinator have apparently broken that rule, asking women to become pregnant first, and then finding adoptive parents later.

It’s a money-making scheme that’s been described in court as a “baby-selling ring,” which had brokered deals for at least 12 unwitting couples before being dismantled by the FBI. According to the Los Angeles Times, Theresa Erickson, a noted San Diego fertility attorney, and Maryland attorney Hilary Neiman, who is well-known in surrogacy circles, were charged with wire fraud; the coordinator, Carla Chambers, was charged with “monetary transactions in property derived from illegal activity.” All three pleaded guilty over the last few weeks in federal court. They have yet to be sentenced.

Court documents lay out a plan that Erickson and Chambers came up with six years ago, before including Neiman in 2008: the women would arrange for surrogates to fly to Ukraine to be impregnated with donor embryos. When the surrogates were about 12 weeks along, the babies would be offered to prospective parents. Once a couple was found, Erickson would file a document in a California court, fraudulently claiming that the surrogacy agreement was in place from the start.

The scam was discovered when one of the surrogates, who was nearly six months pregnant, got nervous that she hadn’t yet been officially paired with adoptive parents. She called an attorney, who called the FBI.

“Creating babies on purpose for specific people is seen as less risky because you know where that child is going if it all plays out well,” says Julie Shapiro, a law professor at Seattle University who blogs regularly about how the law defines the concept of family. “The idea that we create children and then essentially shop them around is morally quite different and unacceptable, and I think that’s why the order matters so much.”

MORE: Should Men Be Allowed to Father Children After They’re Dead?

Prospective parents approached by the defendants were told that the surrogates’ previously arranged agreements had fallen apart. They learned that they could enter into a new agreement with the surrogate for between $100,000 to $150,000, which is on the upper end of typical surrogacy costs. It sounded like a tempting proposition, offering couples “a surrogate well into her pregnancy, after the greatest risk of miscarriage had passed,” according to the L.A. Times. “It would even be possible to choose the sex of a child. In addition, the babies were white — a condition set by many U.S. couples that makes it difficult for them to adopt.”

NEXT: “If those children walked up to my door and said, ‘Hey, Mom,’ I’d say, ‘We have to talk.'”

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