' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: When adoptees' Right to Know becomes a philosophical debate, adoptees lose

Monday, January 30, 2012

When adoptees' Right to Know becomes a philosophical debate, adoptees lose

Diane Rehm (Photo courtesy of WAMU.)
Diane Rehm
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.
Kim Leighton
Kimberly Leighton

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.
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."
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 
* 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


  1. I have to say that as an adopted person I am outraged that anyone would try to tell me that through no fault of my own I am to be part of a special group of unanointed people who have no right to know who their own parents are and their own ancestry. Well F*CK that!

    ..."but there are not good arguments supporting this as a natural human right, the right to know." [Emphasis added, wouldn't you know?]"

    Unless you just happen to be one of those people who doesn't know. And, hello, what about an up-to-date medical history?

  2. If you read the blog earlier, I erred in saying there was no adoptee on the show; Leighton says near the end that she herself is adopted:

    "And one thing I would like to add as a -- as an adoptee is we often think of the adoptee as someone who doesn't know, as if that's a position of luck. And, actually, being adopted, for me, has been a place of opportunity."
    "Kimberly Leighton, assistant professor of philosophy at American University. When we come back, more of your calls and questions...."

  3. Up-to-date medical history, yes, but the right of being able to date another adopted person without having to worry about being perhaps in an incestous relationship, the right to go and try to reunite with bio-family, to mention a few could easily be seen as resulting rights from the right on privacy of the adopted person.

  4. I think this birthmother privacy rhetoric is just a smokescreen. I think the real reason for closed records is to hide all the secrets and lies.

  5. I listened to the show and if my memory if correct Ms. Leighton did say that she searched and found her mother. If that is correct then why was that ok for her but she still has a problem with adoptees searching because of a fear of outing natural mothers. Like I said on my blog, I get really tired of others speaking for me and perpetuating the myth of the anonymity promise.

    The sealing of records began to protect brokers from exposure of their illegal activities. The protection of mothers was the last thing on anyone's mind!

    As far as I'm concerned the adoptee's right to know where they come from trumps those of ANYONE who wants to keep secrets.

  6. As advocates for access dig more and more into the original legislative intent and newspaper articles of the time, the impression one gets is that sealed records were for the ADOPTIVE family.

    Under what circumstances are the records sealed?

    Step-parent adoption. Check.
    Relative adoption. Check.
    Foster care adoption. Check.
    "Open" adoption. Check.
    Adoption of older children. Check.
    Adoption of full or half-orphans. Check.

    But what do opponents trot out as THE reason for sealed records? Unwed mothers - with a side order of "what if it was rape or incest?"

    In some states, the ADOPTIVE parents can decide whether or not to have the records sealed.

    And now sealed records supporters want to control our DNA too?

    One wonders how these people think they can restrict DNA testing for adoptees.

    Can anyone actually prove I was adopted? Perhaps they'll require everyone to produce an OBC. Children of adoptees can. Donor conceived can. Adoptees with children can test them.


  7. Yep, she searched and found--good for her! From the transcript:

    ..."Well, I'm in that middle age where I was old enough to access some recent technologies, which helped assist me. I did search for my birth mother, and I did find my birth mother, which, for many adoptees, they consider that a really fortunate experience. And my life has only been improved certainly knowing this woman and knowing her story and developing a relationship with her. But it also gave me a sense, Diane, that the search doesn't solve every question we have about who we are and what our lives will hold in store for us. Many adoptees, what they really want is they want a story."

    How do you get the true story WITHOUT search-and-find? What she says here is that simply finding your birth mother is not the end-all and be-all to all the complexities of an adoptee's life. And that is certainly one thing we have learned at Firstmotherforum, from all of the adoptee stories we have read and listened to. Someone new to the blog just left a long comment at a blog 3 or 4 posts back.

  8. My mother denies I exist and has refused to tell me who my father is. Her sister told me she has the 'right to privacy' and I have no rights. I found my father at the age of 43 after 20 years of searching. He loves me and is proud of me and he missed me. I lost 20 years with my father, and my children lost a grandfather. What right did anyone have to take that from us all?

  9. Leighton says "I think we can get to that argument without having to presume there is a right to know. We can talk more about this throughout the hour, but there are not good arguments supporting this as a natural human right, the right to know."
    I found this a little confusing and I could be wrong, but it seems to me that she may have meant within the context the subject of the discussion, namely the use of DNA to search backwards, which does raise all sorts of perplexing ethical issues.

    In fact, opening adoption records would make the DNA route unnecessary in almost all cases other than anonymous abandonments or black market adoptions. It would simply be a matter of equal treatment under the law, to which all citizens are entitled.

    I do think that when discussing important issues it is only right to present as many arguments for and against as possible, and it seems to me that that is what Prof. Leighton has tried to do. After all, personal identity is multifarious and complex, not just a legal matter or something solely dependent on biology, ethnicity, nurture or experience. When Leighton says "Many adoptees, what they want is a story", she is not denigrating. She continues "They want to know what the narrative was that preceded them and that determined why they were relinquished".
    It is pretty clear that she felt that way herself and benefited from finding her natural mother and having her personal history restored to her.

    This is from "The proportion of adoptees who have received their birth records in England and Wales. Population trends." by Robert Rushbrooke (can be found in PDF form on Google):
    "Once adoptees started receiving their records, and especially once they started tracing their natural mother, there was a great deal of publicity, Over the next 20 years (following 1975) a variety of sources clearly showed that adoption itself, obtaining one's birth records and reunion with one's natural mother and other natural relatives are deeply emotional experiences for many adoptees."

    Professor Margaret Somerville of McGill University (with whom I disagree about a number of issues, although not this one) is an "ethicist" who believes that sealed records are "harmful to the adopted person and potentially so to the birth family, and unethical."

  10. When I read the transcript and saw the bit by *Kaye* whose mother had relinquished a child, I note she said this at the end:

    "And I just feel as though there should be some buffer system in place so we -- you know, unsuspecting people, who have put a very painful memory behind them, are not confronted with it 40 years later, you know, unsuspectedly"

    I would have liked to ask this caller what state she is from. Because quite a few adoptees have found their parents via information other than their OBC, it is possible that she is from a closed records state.

    I always assumed (probably erroneously) that in states where the records have been unsealed that widespread newspaper coverage was given to the fact that records were going to be unsealed and also widespread advertising was done to give first mothers a chance to place a veto if required (in those states where vetoes are in place). So I would assume that in those unsealed record states, first mothers would be more aware that their children might come looking for them, giving them more time to prepare themselves for the possibility. Therefore, there would be less chance of a first mother being contacted "unsuspectedly" in an open records state than a closed records state. Well, that's the theory anyway lol.

    On another note, in unsealed states, the government has the opportunity to provide information to adoptees at the time they get their OBC about the best ways of making contact. When I reapplied for my OBC from NZ, they sent me an excellent booklet about approaching birthparents. If I had been residing in NZ, I would been required also to have mandatory counselling about making contact.

    Australia (except Qld) and NZ have had open records for decades and I don't believe that society has collapsed in either of those 2 countries. I believe that in NZ that quite a large number of vetoes were placed at the time of unsealing of records in the late 80s but I am unsure if they were renewed throughout the years (they last 5 years). Also, a veto doesn't always mean that the person can't be contacted - I know an adoptee who placed a veto and the government contacted her telling her that her sister had made contact - in the end, she was thinking of making contact with her sister.

  11. Btw I was shocked to read this comment by a reader:

    "Our 33-year old adopted daughter died suddenly of a ruptured brain aneurysm, a condition that often runs in families. Hoping to prevent others in our daughter's birth family from the same fate, I contacted The Clerk of the Court to tell them what happened. It was a closed adoption and they refused to pass the information along to that family. I was heartsick that this mother might suffer from the same tragedy with one of her other children. Wouldn't she want to know?"

  12. This whole post has me steamed. I can't stand it when an adoptee is able to find his or her first mother and then wants to deny others that same opportunity. Also, if sealed records are so great then why are "experts" in adoption now advocating for open adoption? I know their records are still sealed but they will know who their first parents are. And where are the endless problems, lawsuits and outcry from the states that have now or have always had unsealed records?

    I stand by what I always say that every person has the right to know their own parentage. The day someone shows me my signature and where I agreed to this, then and only then will I rethink my position.

  13. from theadoptedones - blogger acting up...

    I'm pretty sure that the constitutional guarantee of privacy only pertains to privacy from governmental interference. (I think TN addressed it in the open records challenge).

    If I am correct on the above then how can the Leighton make any argument about a *birth* parents right to privacy is higher than an adoptees right to know as in neither is a right...therefore neither carries weight and there is no reason not to unseal the records.

    And the further aspect that in our era (pre 1976?) unwed fathers weren't even required to give consent, so how could they have any alledged privacy guarantees if they weren't part of the process?

    The whole argument fails but the other side is a pro on the fear mongering rhetoric to ramp up public support.

    BTW: Washington law in my era allowed the adopter to determine if the records were to be sealed from the public or not...

  14. "I'm pretty sure that the constitutional guarantee of privacy only pertains to privacy from governmental interference."

    I guess you are correct, however, unjust laws can be seen by courts as governmental interference too. If the records concerned belong to, or are managed by, the State, you have obviously a nice playing field for a case. Even if the records are private property, laws allowing secrecy upsetting the privacy of others might well be challenged.

  15. "Leighton is a bio-ethics scholar."

    I wonder if she chose that field because she is an adoptee.

    My has recently voiced to me that in his opinion adoptees have difficulty because of their adoption. Go figure!

    He has a master's degree in psychology which he pursued to find himself.

  16. Angelle: I hope you return to tell us who MY is....

  17. Regarding history of privacy and records: in researching initial birth certificate law in the US, I found that there were people who protested the requirement that births be registered. This started to happen around 1900.

    At that time, the government wished to have a more accurate picture of the population. Birth certificates were proposed for a number of reasons. For example, the registration of births would make it easy to call up and provide the government with a military-draft age population. Also,government birth certificates would help give researchers the ability to study, long-term, populations of people from birth to old-age.

    But, birth certificates have always been regarded by some as a government intrusion. Parents must fill out personal data and, along with hospital personnel, submit it to the government.

    In the early years of birth certificates, not everyone in the US had one. Some people who were living in remote rural areas, born at home, with no doctor, never had one. My father and his 9 brothers and sisters, living in a remote mountain wilderness area, never had any birth certificates.

    And so, there are some very elderly US citizens living today who do not have a birth certificate, although they were born here.

  18. I surrendered my only child in 1972 in San Diego, CA. I have gone over the relinquishment papers with a fine-toothed comb and cannot find ANY mention of confidentiality or right to privacy. I do know that the social worker never once promised me confidentiality of any sort.

    If the right to privacy and a promise of confidentiality was made to any of us during the BSE in the state of California, why in the world would they still have our children listed in the California Birth Index during the years spanning 1960 through 1980 under their birth names? My son is listed under both my name and his father's name; he has a third listing under his adoptive parents' names. Although neither of us can gain access to his OBC without a court order, the State of California still lists us publicly in the CBI...which is available at several genealogy websites.

    I agree with Robin that this "promise of confidentiality" supposedly made to natural mothers is a big smokescreen put up by the NCFA and the lobbyists working on behalf of the adoption industry. How easy it is to lay the blame at the feet of the mothers of the BSE. We've always been easy scapegosts, and the exploitation just continues on ad nauseum....

  19. I as a Human was born a human child like any other human child on this planet...even a starving child in Africa knows its parentage..yet I live in a heated society with food water and yet do not know who I am..adoptee's know the pain of what our first mothers went through but have lived a life of not fitting in feeling strange abandoned non confident, I can sing I found my Birth mother and learned it was a family talent..that talent was never recognised or encouraged in fact was treated like a day dream..all my talents ignored If I stayed with my mother I know they would not have been..life lost instead of the one I have now..all my adopted family dead from old age..I am 50.

    I will never understand why some First mothers wont see this, wont connect to the fact a baby had no choice, we know you never we are quite aware of that, but we did not even get the chance like you to make new mothers..you made new children,,why do you refuse to see that..why do you continue to not connect to the pain of not knowing who we are for entire life times..not connecting to our own faces..these are not made up feelings looking for attention..these are strong emotional feelings that have caused anger, resentment in some adoptee's we don't want to feel that we want to be known by you not shunned rejected AGAIN!..

    lighten up stop making this a "who suffered more pain than who" issue..we will blame you no matter what age we are..but that's not a logical feeling in our heads its like a instinctual feeling..we want to get past that feeling..

    And to those mothers who refuse to depart any info on our fathers like you so love to do..pack it in just suffer that one more time and stop your child the one you claimed to love and miss give that child peace will do you no harm..we suffer and survive over and over..so will you please suffer and survive one more time please..



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