By Robin Lord
Staff Writer, Cape Cod Times
November 22, 2005
Author Jacquelyn Mitchard with baby Atticus, born Nov. 1 at Cape Cod Hospital to a surrogate mother
Best-selling author Jacquelyn Mitchard creates fictional stories. But the tale of her own experience with a surrogate birth is stranger than anything she could have made up, she says.
”What people will do for each other and to each other, it’s something I always knew as a writer, but it never fails to amaze you,” said Mitchard, who gained fame with her first novel, ”The Deep End of the Ocean” and now lives in Madison, Wis., after a short stint in Harwich.
Mitchard and her husband, Christopher Brent, are in a pitched battle with the estranged husband of a woman who was the surrogate mother of their 3-week-old baby. A judge in Barnstable Probate Court could decide the outcome.
Arletta Bendschneider gave birth Nov. 1 at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. The baby, named Atticus Stuart Brent by Mitchard and Brent, has been with the couple ever since.
But Jack Bendschneider of Kings Mountain, Ky., Arletta’s estranged husband, has refused to sign a paper releasing his claim to the boy.
Kentucky law presumes that a child born to a married woman is the legal child of that woman and her husband, said Mitchard’s lawyer, Melissa Brisman of Park Ridge, N.J.
The law, which also applies in Massachusetts, was written before technology made it possible for women to carry surrogate children.
According to Barnstable Probate Court documents, Mitchard and Brent have filed a motion to prevent Cape Cod Hospital from filing a birth certificate with the state health department until their names can be listed as the parents.
The couple has also filed suit demanding that Jack Bendschneider waive his custody rights. If he has not signed by early next month, a Barnstable judge will be asked to determine the biological parents of the baby, Brisman said.
Mitchard and Brent moved to Harwich last summer but decided to return this month to Madison, where they have family, after the surrogacy issue arose, Mitchard said.
”It certainly cast a pall over what should have been an entirely joyous time,” she said.
In vitro fertilization
Atticus was conceived with in vitro fertilization using Brent’s sperm and a donor egg. Another of the couple’s children, Will, was born to a different surrogate mother two years ago. Mitchard, 52, whose first husband died when he was 45, has seven children, ages 3 weeks to 22 years old.
”They’re all mine,” she said. ”Some came to us through adoption, but I don’t distinguish.”
Arletta Bendschneider, 33, is a building inspector in Danville, Ky. A woman in the building department said Bendschneider was out on leave. Repeated attempts to reach her were unsuccessful; her cell phone was turned off and there was no voice mail. On her Web site, wombofhope.com, she says she believed being a surrogate was ”my life’s calling.”
Jack Bendschneider, a factory worker in Danville, did not return messages left with his supervisor or at his parents’ home. His lawyer, Theodore Lavit of Lebanon, Ky., said Bendschneider has no interest in Mitchard’s baby, but sees no reason why he should sign a waiver.
”We’ve had calls from all over the United States. ‘Dr. Phil’ has called and ‘Inside Edition,’ but we’re not interested in trying this case in the newspaper or on television,” Lavit said.
He said Bendschneider, who filed for divorce from his wife when she was eight months pregnant with Mitchard’s and Brent’s child, is only concerned with maintaining custody of his two children, ages 2 and 7.
In September, a judge in Casey County, Ky., ordered Arletta Bendschneider to leave the family home and granted temporary full custody of the children to her husband. The couple is now in the midst of divorce proceedings, Lavit said.
Mitchard said Arletta agreed to carry the baby because of her desire to help couples who could not conceive on their own. She said she accepted only $1,000 of the original $5,000 fee.
On her Web site, Arletta Bendschneider claims her husband was at first ”very supportive” of her pregnancy, and even gave her twice-daily progesterone injections to help maintain it.
Mitchard said Arletta found the separation and the loss of her two children ”extraordinarily devastating.”
”We were just made witness by her courage,” Mitchard said. ”Despite all she was going through, she still remained steadfast and determined to make sure Atticus was born healthy and this was a joyous experience for us.”
Jack Bendschneider is quoted in a Nov. 13 article in the Lexington (Ky.) Herald Leader as saying he feared his children would be ridiculed in their traditional farming community because of his wife’s decision to be a surrogate mother.
”I was physically sick. I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking my children are going to have to discuss this with people later in life,” he is quoted as saying.
Mitchard, whose latest novel, ”Breakdown Lane,” is set to be made into a movie, said she has found solace at this time through her writing. Her new book, ”Cage of Stars,” is due to be released in May.
It was hard to leave Cape Cod, she said, since her children had settled into Harwich schools.
”But this experience made us feel far less adventurous,” she said.