|Demonstrating for the right of identity|
It was gratifying to hear you mention Seneca Falls (women's voting rights), Selma (African-American rights) and Stonewall (gay rights) yesterday, reminding the world of the progress made--and yet to be made--in giving all individuals their right to be free and equal to all. But there was one group sorely missing, and whose rights are being violated on a daily basis: the adopted.
The vast majority of them--somewhere between six and eight million--do not have the clear and unfettered right to learn their true identities. That
surely inviolate right was stolen from them upon adoption under archaic laws dating from an era when attitudes about being born "out of wedlock" were as out of date as the phrase sounds today. Attitudes change, but laws persist. "Adopted children" grow up to be fully-formed adults, but only in seven states do they have the right, without qualifications, to obtain a copy of their original, unamended, birth certificates. That singular piece of paper contains to key to the answer: Who am I? Who was I when I was born?
The laws date from a time--the Thirties to the Sixties--when the shame of becoming pregnant outside of marriage could ruin a woman. Her disgrace carried over to her child, and the thinking was that by obliterating her, the individual could have a new life, unchained from his past. Yet these laws were passed without giving a voice to those whom they primarily affected: the adopted, and with these laws, the state stripped away their right to answer any and all questions they might have about their backgrounds. One can name only one other institution that so cavalierly took individual rights that were without end for those most directly affected: slavery.
The stumbling block to unsealing birth certificates is the supposed secrecy guaranteed women like myself. But the laws did not seal the birth certificate upon relinquishment of our children, but upon adoption, and so women could not be granted automatically and legally the kind of "privacy" that seems so inviolate by those opposed to giving adoptees the right to know who they are. Furthermore, it is morally indefensible that adopted individuals are denied access to this basic tenant of self-knowledge because disclosure will embarrass some. Nonetheless, this is the argument we hear when we lobby for unsealing the original birth certificates. And so our bills are shunted to committee to die. But questions of identity do not die.
Not all adoptees search. Many are quiescent because they do not wish to hurt their adoptive parents, who have conveyed to them that such a search is a denunciation of their care and love. But it is not; it is simply a quest for the truth of one's origins, something I know you have wrestled with. For many who can find no answers, the void of knowledge is painful, unending, and life-altering.
As with gay marriage, this is an issue clogged up in the states. Halfway measures that give birth/first parents say over whether a document should be released still keep adoptees in the chains of an outdated mindset and outmoded law. The right to know one's true identity should not be constrained by the state, and must be an inviolate right if we are to be a nation of men and women who are free and equal to all.
In closing, consider the words of Sister Dominica Maria, director of the New York Foundling Home in the Thirties. She wrote to the governor, Herbert H. Lehman, begging that the bill he promoted sealing the original birth records upon adoption in the state not pass. As an adoptive father of that era, he was doing what he thought best, and the New York legislature bent to his will. Yet her reasons for opposing this law are as true today as they were nearly four score years ago:
"(1) It legalizes the falsification of permanent public records.
(2) It nullifies the inalienable right of person to know the actual facts of his birth.
3) Any special provision for illegitimate children which will single them out from the group of legitimate children is bound to be a cause of embarrassment to them in later years…. Sister Dominica Maria, Superintendent, New York Foundling Hospital. April 25, 1935”I know you have much on your agenda for the next four years, but you have the prestige and power to make a difference. An endorsement from you for the reform we seek would influence decision makers to help relegate these laws into the dustbin of history, where they will surely end up one day.
I am the author of Birthmark (1979),the first and highly controversial memoir from a birth mother, and have been involved in adoptee rights since the 1970s.
See also: Dear President Obama: Open Sealed Records