“My practice has been a mission from the very beginning. I felt an early calling to serve, to do something meaningful and vital,” says attorney Mary Catherine Barrett. She now has successfully completed over 600 adoptions and surrogacies in her 29 years of practice.
The spark of inspiration came in 1990 when, as a Cleveland-Marshall College of Law student, Barrett participated in a moot court competition on the issue of, “The Legality of Surrogate Parent Contracts.” The topic was certainly controversial for the time.
“It lit me up,” says the energetic attorney. “I felt passionate about these issues.”
Barrett sent her resume to adoption attorneys throughout the country and to the sole surrogacy attorney, Noel Keane, considered to be the father of surrogate parenting law. Barrett had seen Keane’s appearance on the Phil Donahue Show and knew he was a pioneer. She received two offers, one from an adoption attorney in Beverly Hills and one from Keane in San Francisco. She immediately moved to California to help Keane establish his San Francisco office. It was invigorating and cutting- edge work for the newly minted lawyer.
“The experience was invaluable. The work of the Keane Center for Surrogacy was ground breaking. I look back and think what a privilege it was to learn such cutting-edge law.”
It’s easy to trace where her deep dedication and strong character was forged. Raised in a large, loving family, Barrett’s examples were her parents, who raised their five children with a sense of responsibility and deep commitment to contributing to community and education. And, her father’s deep conviction to practicing law with honor and integrity. There is now a total of six lawyers in Barrett’s family. Her father, Ben Barrett is in his 53rd year of full-time practice in civil trial law.
After helping Keane open his San Francisco center, Barrett extended her reach, working for a nonprofit adoption agency specializing in placing children with special needs for adoption. It was operated by Rose Marie Neilson in Santa Rosa, California.
“Rose Marie was a former nun,” Barrett explains. “She had left the convent, called to have a family, but no one would let her adopt because she was over 40. Undaunted, Rose Marie started her own adoption agency focused on children with special needs.
“That’s where I learned much of the philosophy which is the foundation of my adoption practice. Rose Marie was such a beautiful lady.
“We actually had a waiting list for children with Down’s Syndrome,” she adds. “These clients knew the special treasures and love children with Down’s Syndrome bring to a home.”
Armed with a sense of purpose and wealth of experience, Barrett returned home to Ohio in 1993 to establish her practice. Focusing her practice on adoption and surrogacy law, she became one of the first attorneys in Ohio to practice in the area of surrogacy.
From the outset, her surrogacy practice has been like “the wild, wild west,” given that there were no laws on which to rely. Even today, many laws vary from county to county in Ohio and certainly from state to state.“I practiced in uncharted waters.”
Imagine the importance for parents who have experienced grief, heartache and loss. Parents whose desire to love a child and accept responsibility for an adopted child or a child born through surrogacy, know no limits. I could not fathom a world where the lack of written laws could prevent love from going forward.”
In the early years, Barrett’s clients were typically those who had a friend of a friend who either knew of her work or had used her services. As her reputation grew, her work expanded both nationally and internationally.
“I went on a mission trip to Russia, to donate shoes to children in orphanages, that forever changed my life,” says Barrett. “People on that trip wanted to adopt the orphans we met. My heart broke open and I could not just walk away. I forged my way through, figured it out, and international adoptions became a significant part of my practice.”
Barrett describes the experience of being in the presence of so many orphaned children. It was heartbreaking. It’s an experience that has had a permanent impact and compels her tenacity to this day.
“It is that deep sense of purpose that motivates my practice. Seeing these innocent children being matched with people who sincerely wanted to offer them a home and family but were previously unable to is deeply fulfilling.”
“The older children particularly grabbed my heart,” she says. “So, one year, I created a summer camp and I brought seven older children to Rocky River, Ohio, from an orphanage in Russia, for a six-week summer camp. They were all adopted, including two additional siblings. It is that deep sense of purpose that motivates my practice. Seeing these innocent children being matched with people who sincerely wanted to offer them a home and family but were previously unable to is deeply fulfilling.”
In 1999, Barrett’s practice took a turn after a conversation with Cleveland pediatrician Dr. Karen Olness. “At that time, the medical community was just beginning to understand the impact on a child who was deprived of proper nutrition and love during the tender years prior to age two. The child could suffer attachment and bonding issues with little chance of recovery. Adopting parents needed to understand that risk. I was advised to focus on the infants who would have a better opportunity at successful integration into American families.”
“I was advised, you can only be a drop in the bucket. You cannot be the whole ocean.”
DIFFERENT PATHS TO PARENTHOOD
Throughout her career, Barrett, while expanding her knowledge and skills in adoptions, was also on the forefront of an ever-unfolding frontier that was rapidly introducing a more diverse and untried variety of family creation. A significant part of her practice has been in the area of gestational surrogacy or gamete donation, more currently referred to as assisted reproductive technology law.
Since 1993, Barrett has been successfully and quietly completing surrogacy parenting arrangements, including both pre-birth and post-birth parentage orders. “It’s been very interesting and exciting working in an area where there are no laws.”
For example, Barrett established parental rights for an intended mother who used an egg donor. Barrett’s continued efforts have been precedent setting throughout the State of Ohio.
Barrett sees her mission as creating families and assuring that the means of creation are in keeping with integrity and the bounds of the law.
“But there is still so much misunderstanding by attorneys and even courts about the law in the area of assisted reproductive technology.”
KEEPING UP WITH TECHNOLOGY
Barrett has continued to explore, understand, and in some cases, even define the law regarding reproductive technology and parenthood. For more than 27 years, she has been developing and revising surrogacy contracts, which are now 63 pages in length, as well as incorporating changes as the laws slowly catch up.
In December 2006, the Ohio Supreme Court changed the landscape of surrogacy law in its groundbreaking decision of J.F. v. D.B., 116 Ohio St. 3rd, 363. It was the first decision in the country to determine that surrogate parenting contracts are not void against public policy and are enforceable.
“This was the correct decision. Surrogacy is not going away. This case protects intended parents from extortion. It protects the surrogates from not being paid. It protects the surrogate parent from unintentionally having parental responsibility for the child,” Barrett says.
Barrett contends that the legal distinction between adoption and surrogacy is critical. “It is the difference between a loving family and a crime.”
In an adoption, the birth mother has parental rights that must be terminated. She cannot be paid for terminating those rights – that is baby-selling. These cases fall under the jurisdiction of R.C. 3107 in the probate court.
“In a properly contracted surrogacy arrangement, the gestational carrier (surrogate) never has parental rights because of in vitro fertilization and her egg is not used. Therefore, she can be compensated for her service of gestation because it is not her baby. These cases fall under R.C. 3111 and are the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court. These are contracts declared enforceable by J.F. v. D.B. In comparison, with traditional surrogacy (utilizing artificial insemination) the surrogate’s egg is used, and if she is paid – that is a crime. That’s baby-selling.”
“It is interesting to be practicing in an ever-evolving area of law.”
“It is interesting to be practicing in an ever-evolving area of law.” For example, Barrett argues constitutional rights of equal protection because, “we have sperm donor statues, embryo donor statutes, but no egg donor statues. The egg donors and their recipients deserve the same protections as the sperm donors and their recipients.”
Thanks to her many years of experience and extensive knowledge of this complex area, Barrett has been invited on many occasions to give presentations to schools, hospitals, and professional organizations on topics ranging from private placement adoption, surrogacy, ovum donor legislation and ethical and legal ramifications of third-party reproduction among other topics. She served as an adjunct professor for six years teaching adoption and surrogacy law at Case Western Reserve Law School.
Barrett is zealous both in her desire to help create loving families and in her insistence that the law, as it has evolved, be kept clear and uncompromised.
“There is just too much at stake for us to not insist on clarity in the law that applies to these families.”
She recently spoke, at the invitation of the Ohio Supreme Court, to the Judges of the Ohio Juvenile Courts on the issue of surrogacy and artificial reproductive technology. “I expressed the same thought as I did at the moot court project 30 years ago,” she says. “The law has not caught up with the technology. We are still in the wild, wild west legally with assisted technology reproduction.”
It is Barrett’s own creative energy and passion that motivates her to share the miracle with others. She is currently in the process of authoring her first text on adoption and the journey for those seeking that family connection. Tentatively titled, “The Creation of Love: A Hero’s Path to Parenthood,” it is set to be completed this year.
“I am grateful that I had the tenacity to pursue this practice. At the outset, one court official told me that I could only do one adoption per year. There was a complete lack of understanding and mistrust of private adoptions and, certainly, of surrogacy. This is precisely why I fought so hard to get clarity and definition in the legal relationship for parties and welcome further developments in the legislation.”
Despite the challenges and obstacles, Barrett draws a deep sense of satisfaction from her life’s work. “Most of my clients come to me with great loss, heartache and grief. They are transformed through the challenges of this process. These challenges can bring out the highest and best in people; I witness their focus shift from their own personal loss to having compassion and understanding the birthparent’s courageous struggle and to the best interest of the child.”
“We have a picture of Monet’s Bridge in my office. I see us as simply assisting our clients across the bridge of transformation with compassion, integrity and truth to parenthood or if a birth parent, assisting them in finding their truth and courage with respect for their child.”
By the time a couple and birth mother get to the court for the consent hearing, the hard work of adoption is mostly complete.
It’s significant to note that Barrett’s firm has never had a surrogacy relationship contested or a birth parent challenge an adoption she has arranged. She attributes this to the honor and respect she devotes to the birth parents and surrogates throughout the process.
“It doesn’t matter to me how someone creates their family. … Each person’s path is unique and made for personal reasons. I consider it a privilege to help my clients become parents.”
Still firmly committed to the calling she felt three decades ago, Barrett happily shares this: “It doesn’t matter to me how someone creates their family. Whether they adopt a healthy infant, a child with special needs from an orphanage, an older child from the foster care system, whether they create a family through a surrogate with their gametes or donated super gametes, it doesn’t matter to me. Each person’s path is unique and made for personal reasons. I consider it a privilege to help my clients become parents. It really does make the world a better place.”