Today there are approximately six million people in America who do not have the right to answer the question: Who am I? Who was I at birth? The state took that right from them when they were adopted as infants or toddlers. Only in eight states do they have the right to their original birth certificates. An active movement of adoptee-rights advocates is pressing for reform throughout the country, but the going is at a snail’s pace. At this rate, millions of people will die before the laws are changed, and changed they will be one day. Right is on our side.
Adopted people are not children all their lives. They grow up and need not only updated family medical information, but they need and desire to be whole and integrated individuals, and that includes having full knowledge of who they were at birth. As far back as 1971, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated in a position paper: Determining identity is a difficult process for someone brought up by his natural parents; it is more complex for the individual whose ancestry is unknown to him. Cicero said it this way: Not to have knowledge of what happened before you were born is to be condemned to live forever as a child.
I am a birth mother and journalist who has written extensively about this subject for numerous publications, from Parent’s magazine to The New York Times to Newsweek to USA Today, as well as others. I am also the author of Birthmark (1979), the first memoir to break the silence of women who gave up their children to adoption. I have testified for open records both in Albany and in Washington DC before legislative committees. I relinquished my daughter in 1966 in Rochester. I am the New York representative of the American Adoption Congress, but I write to you as a private citizen today.
The main objection to giving adoptees their original birth certificates is the supposed confidentiality “promised” to the women who relinquished their children in years past when great shame was attached to bearing a child out of wedlock. The vast majority of birth mothers welcome reunion with their children – even if that child is the product of rape or incest. This is only one example, but it speaks volumes. When Maine passed legislation opening its files as of January 1, one of the leaders of the reform was birth mother Bobbi Beavers, whose surrendered child was the product of a rape. She and her son have been reunited.
Yes, there are some who wish to remain unknown to their children. But their number is small. Various studies both in this country and abroad indicate that only between three and six percent wish to remain anonymous from their children. Yet the imagined specter of these women in the mind of legislators continues to block open records at the state level. This small group of women should not dictate public policy, a policy that so dramatically involves an entire class of people, individuals who were never asked what their preferences were. You have to go back to slavery to find a similar situation in which two parties – the state and an individual – make a bargain that forever seals the fate of a third person.
Despite the evidence, still the myth – that of the poor, woebegone “unwed mother” who has never told a soul, let alone her husband – persists. It is in her name that the National Council for Adoption, a coalition of adoption agencies opposed to open records, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, some adoption attorneys, argue to keep records sealed and sued in state courts. But the lawsuits, filed in both Tennessee and Oregon, have failed as the higher courts recognize the validity of adopted individuals seeking their identity papers.
The secrecy-seeking woman is a smoke screen, and obscures what these organizations really want, i.e., to cling to outdated closed adoptions—they can charge more for them! And they do. Despite what we know about the need to know, despite our best efforts to educate the public, despite what common sense dictates, some prospective parents still want closed adoptions and sealed records, and they are the ones who fund the organizations fighting to keep records sealed.
Yet the evidence is clear: no one is harmed by giving adopted people their original birth certificates. Oregon has had open records since May 30, 2000; according to the Oregon Center For Health Statistics website, as of May 31, 2007, 9366 unamended—i.e., original—birth certificates were requested, while 84 women have filed a “no-contact” preference, 79 of them filed when the records were first opened. That is fewer than one percent. Other states with open records are Alabama, Maine, New Hampshire. Tennessee and Delaware allow a mother to file a contact veto; Alaska and Kansas never sealed the birth records of adoptees. Open-record states report no problems due to this policy.
In 1980, the then U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare came to a similar conclusion after holding numerous hearings of adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents, social workers and other experts around the country. The Model Adoption Act the agency issued stated:
“There can be no legally protected interest in keeping one’s identity secret from one’s biological offspring; parents and child are considered co-owners of the information regarding the event of birth….The birth parents’ interest in reputation is not alone deserving of constitutional protection.”
While other provisions of the act were passed, this provision died at the behest of a powerful senator from Texas, the late John Tower. He was an adoptive father.
But beyond the fact of the small numbers of women seeking anonymity from their own children, you will find no legal precedent written into law in any state of the country. The relinquishment papers birth mothers signed contain no promise of anonymity.
New York’s law is probably typical. Dating from 1935, and passed at the behest of the then governor, Herbert H. Lehman, it contains no promise of confidentiality given to the women who surrendered their children. In fact, many of us, including myself, argued with our social workers about this implied premise of the law when we were signing the surrender papers. We were told we had no choice, if we were to go ahead with an agency-sponsored adoption. In short, we simply capitulated as we had no power to do otherwise.
Worth noting is that Gov. Lehman was an adoptive father. Presumably, this outdated law was passed with good intentions – to assure that families formed by adoption bond, and it was thought then this was best done by severing ties to the past. Presumably, the intent of the law was in the best interests of the child. We now know this simplistic view of adoption doesn’t work.
And understand this, no matter how sorry a group we birth mothers were at the time we gave up our children, we and the times have changed. We are different now, and we deserve no special treatment, not when the state affords no such protection to any other group of people. Many people wish to bury their past and hide their previous marriages; men, including priests, do not wish to be named as fathers in paternity suits, yet the state does not take it upon itself to offer the protection of privacy to them; nor should the state be in the business of “protecting” a minute number of birth mothers from embarrassment, especially as it comes as the cost of trampling the rights of others.
Opponents of open-records often show up to testify and claim that adoptions will go down, and that abortions will go up if the records are unsealed. This is untrue. In the open-records states of Kansas and Alaska, adoptions are proportionally higher, and abortion rates lower, than the national average. Indeed, Kansas has significantly lower abortion rates than the four surrounding states – all with sealed records. Please note that the National Council for Adoption actually has collected these figures, but their spokesman frequently ignores what he knows and makes this specious statement when it testifies, simply because he can. He lies.
Opponents of open records also argue for registries matching parents and adoptees, rather than releasing birth data. But most registries were set up with enough restrictive provisions to make them largely ineffective, and that certainly is the case here. In New York more than 18,000 adoptees, birth parents and siblings have registered since December of 1983, but the “success” rate is fewer than four percent! Offering adoptees a registry is a poor excuse for denying them their original birth certificates. Being able to own that piece of paper surely would seem to be a right that the Constitution guarantees for everyone, once the plague of slavery was abolished.
However difficult it has been to change hearts and minds, change is coming. A 1994-95 Cornell University survey of adoptive parents in New York found that 78 percent actually favored open records. Enlightened adoptive parents and grandparents are sometimes our staunchest supporters in state legislatures. Adoptive father Sen. Lou D’Allesandro led the charge in the New Hampshire Senate in 2005 that opened the records in that state.
For myself, I went around the law. By going underground and paying some stranger $1,200 in 1981, I located my daughter nearly a quarter of a century ago, and enjoyed a relationship with her and her parents for 26 years. She died in 2007.
I ask you to let other adoptees have this same right and find a way to give adopted people the relief they seek. They want only to be treated like all other citizens: to have the right to the information of their birth. They were never asked what was in their best interests in this singular event of their lives. Birth mothers never were promised the secrecy and anonymity from our own children so many would continue to foist upon us. For the vast majority of us, the law as written only continues the cruel and harsh punishment that surrendering our children initially heaped upon us.
Bills to open the records have been around since the Seventies, but have been blocked for years. It is time to let the truth of one’s origins be everyone’s birth right. It is time to let adopted individuals—who never asked to be adopted, who were never asked what was in their best interests—to enjoy the same rights as the rest of us. You can right this wrong by pushing for federal legislation that gives all adopted persons the right to know the answers to life's most primal questions: Who am I? Who was I when I was born? What is my story?
Lorraine Dusky, first/birth/original mother