by David Phelps and Joyce Bahr,
Members of New York’s “Unsealed Initiative,” having ended a legislative lobby session in Albany for the Bill of Adoptee Rights, are in solidarity with protesters at the National Conference of State Legislatures annual conference in Chicago, Illinois in August 2012 . Exasperated with outdated laws dating back to the 1930’s which sealed original birth certificates forever, advocates for change and reform in adoption want legislators to know they will no longer tolerate unfairness, discrimination and disrespect. Why in the twenty first century are there laws nullifying a person’s right to know the basic facts of their birth?
The United Kingdom opened adoption records more than three decades ago in 1975. Some countries throughout the world never sealed their adoption records and others that did have changed their laws since the 1980’s, providing adopted people their long overdue rights. American adult adoptees have also had some success in changing antiquated adoption legislation. Recent legislation in Alabama, Maine, New Hampshire Oregon and Rhode Island has restored legal recognition of their full human dignity.
Archaic and false adoption myths, the adoption industry, some adoptive parent legislators and legislators fearing that opening records will necessarily lead to an increase in abortion have all conspired to impede legislative progress in the U.S. Adopted persons have been made to feel shame and fear simply because they want to know who they are and where they come from, a foundational human need that non adopted people take for granted. Adopted people have begun to speak out against this discrimination. They ask: who do sealed birth certificates actually protect and serve?
The legislation which sealed original birth certificates never codified or even touched upon birth parent confidentiality, which many legislators believe was promised to these parents as a condition of surrender. Recent research conducted by Professor Elizabeth Samuels of the Baltimore School of Law, entitled The Idea of Adoption: An Inquiry into the History of Adult Adoptees Access to Birth Records which was published in the Rutgers Law Review, concludes that laws closing records to the parties were not enacted as a shield to protect birth parents, but rather as a sword to prevent them interfering with adoptive families.
The confidentiality of birth/natural parents has been a bone of contention in the struggle for adoptee rights and has been used as a smokescreen for other reasons to object to legislative reform. It is said for example that adoptive parents desire to keep the status quo. However, a 1997 study by Cornell University found adoptive parents overwhelmingly support adoptees’ right to know. It is not surprising to find that there are adoptive parent legislators who support reform.
Many unproven fears retard the movement to grant adult adopted people their birthright. Some fear an increase in abortions, some fear a decline in adoption placements, some say birth mothers were given confidentiality. None of these fears have been justified in the histories of those states which have opened their records. Abortions have not increased. Adoptions have not decreased. These days a small percentage of birth mothers reject contact with their children. At the time of surrender, they signed only a surrender paper terminating their parental rights and confidentiality was not given. In any event, advocates say that those who are the most concerned, namely adopted people themselves, should have the same right to access their original birth certificates as everyone else. They should decide, without interference from the state.
A comprehensive study conducted in November 2007 by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, the foremost think tank on adoption issues, concluded that adoptees behave with maturity and respect when contacting members of their natural families; the lives natural/birth parents have not been ruined. This report urges all states to open their adoption records. A follow up study by the Donaldson Institute was released in 2010. The study For the Records II an Examination and Impact of Adult Adoptee Access to Birth Certificates and the 2007 study can both be read on the Institute’s website.
Times have changed and thousands of adoptees and birth/natural parents search for each other every year. Several states have pending legislation and several states have partial open records, meaning adopted people born in certain years have access. Do birth/natural parents have access? Four states have enacted laws giving them search assistance, but not access. These are Hawaii, Illinois, Georgia and Tennessee.
The August 2012 protest in Chicago, Illinois organized by members of the Adoptee Rights Demonstration is a demand for legislators to vote on Adoptee Rights legislation, not to table it or to assign it to a committee known as “hell where bills go to die.” Protesters are asking legislators to think hard about an adoptee’s inalienable right to original identity and their need to know. Advocates describe sealed records laws as unfair, discriminatory and unenlightened, as relics of the past. Legislative change has been exceedingly slow and painstakingly difficult. It is past time for our laws reflect current research, the norms of the civilized world and to recognize the full humanity of adopted persons!