Birth mother privacy has been in the news of late, beginning with a Diane Rehm on NPR show that ostensibly was about DNA analysis that leads to connecting adopted people to their families. And that show came after a New York Times front page story about DNA analysis two days earlier. Sometimes it is third cousins who can connect, because they have also had their DNA decoded, but third cousins lead to second cousins and they lead to first...and a body might be able to connect the dots back to one's original mother.
Holy Cow! Uncles
are shocked, children faint, husbands leave! Horrors! goes the
collective gasp from the people who see all rights as equal competing against other rights. (One wonders what they would have done during the era of slavery, but never mind.) Competing-but-equal rights regarding human identity was the opinion of the self-styled expert, Kimberly Leighton, there to discuss adopted people's right to search-and-connect after DNA matches. Leighton says near the end of the show that she is an adoptee who searched and found, something I missed on first reading of the transcript.
Leighton is a bio-ethics scholar in the philosophy and religion department at American University, located in Washington, DC, home of the Diane Rehm Show. One of the other guests was Deborah Riley, executive director, The Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc. An adoptive parent, she at least was familiar with adoptees need to know, and was in favor of unilateral adoptees' rights to know their biological heritage, even if problems occurred. Go Deborah! There was no first mother there, but we won't grouse about that in this context.
Leighton yammered on and on about "the women who gave up their children for adoption were, in many ways, promised confidentiality." ..."And to find a third cousin and to begin a search backwards that way opens up the possibility that you're presenting yourself to family members who have no idea that this woman might have even been pregnant." ..."but there are not good arguments supporting this as a natural human right, the right to know." [Emphasis added, wouldn't you know?] No one on the show disagreed with her. A few phone calls were from people who had less than welcoming reunions with their natural parents.
BIRTH MOTHERS HUDDLED IN THE CLOSET Given how shameful it was to be pregnant out of "wedlock" in the days when we gave up our children--and even decades later*--we understand how many women were to counseled to bury the thoughts of this child. One of my closest friends was told by a priest that she had to think of her daughter as "dead." I shudder even to write this. It is true, pregnancies were sometimes kept secret even from brothers and sisters. My own parents did not know at the time of my pregnancy and relinquishment. Many women apparently have not told their husbands or their other (kept) children about the missing link in their family tree. We know sometimes problems erupt when adoptees come calling. We have heard from many adoptees who were not welcomed by their natural families and first/birth mothers.
We also know that after years of being silenced on the subject of a child lost of adoption, this is a difficult dilemma for many women. First mothers who have been in the closet so long feel that that closet is the only place they can be comfortable. Having kept a secret from their nearest and dearest, they are just as fearful of the sense of being thought a liar by omission, as they are of revealing what they see as a terrible secret. Or if relatives are contacted first, they cannot handle the truth of reality, and decide unilaterally that their sister/cousin/aunt in the closet does not want to be reminded of this missing child--without even asking her what she wants. Silence such as this hurts not just the single woman with the secret; silence hurts us all.
What was missing from the show was any mention of the fact that the laws which sealed original birth records did not promise anonymity to the mother. The laws, dating from the later 40s and onward, only sealed birth records at the time of adoption, so there could have been no legal promise of anonymity of the birth mother and or father. Some argue that because adoption was assumed, the law in effect did promise anonymity. We disagree. We vehemently disagree, no matter what the mother assumed at the time. No such right of privacy was ever granted putative fathers in the era before DNA could unequivocally prove parentage. We also add that mothers had no choice in the matter, and in most states, still have no voice, despite their known desire not to remain anonymous from their offspring. There is an inherent and unassailable right to know one's parentage, as far as it is possible, and that any restrictions on this right cannot be defended on any humane and ethical grounds. Philosophically and intellectually, yes, such arguments can be made; humanely and ethically, never.
Call me crazy, but I think what I am reading is that her work will bulwark the argument for anonymous egg and sperm sellers--and closed adoptions. She herself and searched and found, and is able to say of her adoption that it "has been a place of opportunity." But she finds philosophical answers to deny that very same life-changing opportunity to others. When she writes that "a lot is being assumed here," she is criticizing those who would argue that anonymous egg or sperm, or a fused combination of the two, is not ethical. If she presages the Brave New World of tomorrow, if this is how the educated react to an already over-populated world today, then the Earth is in for one hell of a culturally confused generation tomorrow. This concept of anonymous people production reminds me of the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only in this case, it is Identity Thieves who are at loose and running amuck in academic robes.--lorraine
A NEW BREED OF ETHICIST One example of the argument Leighton puts forth is the recent discussion in the United States and Europe about the ethics of anonymous gamete donation (AGD) in academic circles. From American University's website at the page for Leighton: "Because children born through AGD cannot know who their donors were, many ethicists are saying that the practice is impermissible, arguing that the anonymity denies the 'offspring' something they should be able to know about themselves," says Leighton. "A lot is being assumed here about identity and the ethics of self-knowledge."
* Except for a group of Proud Birth Mothers who blog about the joys and--opps, pain of surrendering a child.
Sources: New York Times: With DNA Testing, Adoptees Find a Way to Connect With Family ...
NPR: Adoptees using DNA to find family
Also see from The Declassified Adoptee: Is This Really Ethical? An Open Letter to American University Professor, Prof. Kimberly Leighton
and On promises, privacy and adoptees’ right to know