' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Sealed adoptee birth record laws: Protecting patriarchy

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Sealed adoptee birth record laws: Protecting patriarchy

"Laws written by men to protect women deserve scrutiny" argued the plaintiffs in a case before the U. S. Supreme Court, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, to over turn a Texas law that restricts women's access to abortion by targeting doctors and clinics that provide abortions. The law requires physicians who provide abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic. A separate provision, which has not yet gone into effect, would mandate that abortion clinics must meet standards for "ambulatory surgical centers," which includes, for instance, having hallways wide enough to have two gurneys pass, a totally unnecessary demand and a costly renovation for most clinics.

The claim that  hospital-grade facilities are necessary at abortion clinics is clearly bogus and designed simply to close clinics. Since the law passed in 2013, 22 of 41 abortion clinics in Texas have closed, and approximately more than 750,000 women in Texas live more than 200 miles from an abortion provider. In 2012, only 10,000 women lived more than 200 miles away.

The "need to protect women" is the same tired argument used to justify denying adoptees the right to access their original birth certificates, as legislators claim it is the "need to protect birth mothers" who were promised anonymity. Excuse us--that was never the reason that the records were sealed; if anything they were passed to "protect" adoptive parents from mothers who they felt might interfere with the family, as they hovered around their children through the years. Again, these laws sealing adoption records were passed by male legislators, and signed by male governors. In New York the governor was Herbert H. Lehman, adoptive father of three.

In large part--because most legislators continue to be men--male legislators* are the driving force behind the prevailing belief that first mothers need to be "protected" and allowed to continue to be anonymous from their children. Yes, there are notable exceptions, such as Helene Weinstein in New York, and others, who continue to block efforts by adoptees to repeal these laws, and who like first mother Ann Rivers in Washington, add annoying caveats that limit access. And as I wrote last week about a particular case, male judges uphold the laws. When Lorraine and others testified in New York at a legislative hearing, two male judges spoke of the havoc that would ensure if the records were unsealed; they were followed by a male attorney, Aaron Britvan, a major adoption attorney (some call him a baby broker) in the New York City area.

When the legal language may say that the records were sealed to "protect the integrity of the adoptive family," what that means in practical terms is to "protect the adoptive family" from being bothered by the natural birth mother, who is not likely to forget her child. E. Wayne Carp makes clear the compelling factors behind the sealed-records laws in his book, Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption

The deeply ingrained thinking is that natural mothers need to be shielded from the fruits of their "sin." Protecting their reputations is more important than allowing adoptees to have essential medical records--and the essential knowledge of who they were at birth, who they are descended from.

When we scrutinize this argument, what becomes apparent is that the real "sin" of unwed mothers is having a baby outside the bounds sanctioned by men. These children, treated as legally fatherless, were to be kept secret and be given to a couple whose lifestyle conformed to the rules of patriarchy, Granting a right to mothers to keep these children a secret--a right which the overwhelming number of mothers don't want--reinforces male power by legitimizing their fear of disclosure. The sealed record laws actually harm a great many mothers because the laws stymie and often prevent their children's searches for their mothers.

In order to avoid the harsh penalties imposed for having a baby not sanctioned by a man, many women turned to abortion. Now many male legislators have responded to women's choices by restricting the right to abortion, which is the ultimate way to control women's bodies.

Now obviously, not all men have a need to control women's fertility--Roe v. Wade was decided by seven men--but men today are the strongest opponents of legalized abortion--and unsealing records.--jane

Lorraine here: Twice when I have lobbied in Albany, I've met a woman who is a female legislator's aide, and she's always been particularly discomfited by my visit and arguments. Last time, when I was leaving, I said to her out of earshot of the adoptees who were with me--It's personal, isn't it? And she nodded Yes. My guess? Either she or her boss is a mother in the closet. I hate it, but after learning the truth about Yvonne, my opposition friend who admitted just before she died she had a "first" child, that's now what I think. It wasn't about being an adoptive parent; that would have made her more defensive; this was just flat out uneasiness, as if she understood, didn't like hearing about adoptee angst and stolen identity, but couldn't take the step to open her heart. Those sealed-records laws did so much damage to everyone.

AND IN OTHER NEWS: Sheldon Silver, the former New York State Assembly speaker, has lost his license to practice law after his conviction for fraud and extortion. "Shelly" as he was known, obstructed our decades-long attempts to undue the 1936 law that sealed original birth certificates in New York. Obviously we didn't have enough money to pay him to get our bill out of committee--even though it appeared that we had the votes to get it passed. Silver was disbarred the other day. He will be sentenced on April 13, the same day that Dean Skelos, the former head of the New York Senate, also will be, along with his adopted son. Skelos also just let our bill sputter and fester. He replaced the long time head of the Senate, Joe Bruno, who was also convicted of fraud, and acquitted of five felonies. The charges were overturned on appeal and the state decided not to retry him. He is of course, a man, and he is also an adoptive father. Bruno and Silver were just as important as any governor during their time in office. Skelos less so, but he still was the Man in charge.

 * Like women who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, women who opposed unsealing birth certificates are either extremely naive, or protecting someone--if not themselves.
This Thursday, 3/31, 6:30-8:30 (plenty of time for questions, my reading is about 45 minutes) I'll be speaking about the true cost of adoption to natural mothers and their children, and reading  from Hole In My Heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption at the Modern Family Center of Spence-Chapin, 410 E. 92nd, Manhattan. Although some have reservations about me reading at an adoption agency, their website offers search help for those adopted through Spence-Chapin, Louise Wise and Talbot Perkins. It's on the website of the Modern Family Center. And they have been most welcoming. I'm not sure what to expect, but I know they hope to have a varied group.
If you are coming, they ask that you register, but last minute walk-ins are welcome! Link here:

Lorraine Dusky: A Reading from Hole in my Heart

Laws written by men
Impact of Texas clinic law
Roe v. Wade Fast Facts

Adoptee denied medical history
Washington representatives sell adoptees and birth mothers short


  1. Hmm, I've never thought of it before this way but I think you are on to something. My understanding was that the records were not only sealed to keep the new family safe from the taint of scandal but also to redeem the child from bastardhood. Of course, these things are very much part and parcel of patriarchy which, let's face it, we have only really begun to dismantle in certain parts of the world in the last 100 years. Tragic how the women's movement has been largely useless on this issue when it has achieved so many great things for women and by, extension, their families.

    Anyone catch the townhall last night? I'm no Cruz fan but the story he told about his mother provided the last puzzle piece for me. Cruz, despite his ultra-right leanings and 24-7 bashing of Planned Parenthood, is notably free of sexism compared to some of the others. (I know, how many qualifiers did I have to pack into that?) He obviously learned some important lessons about women in the workplace from her. In fact, he said he did.

    1. Jess--after reading your comment I added more to the discussion in the original post. Who is the new family being kept safe from?

      Didn't catch Cruz (I simply cannot stand his whiny voice) but do tell how he appeared to be notably free of sexism? And what is the story of his mother?

    2. Politico had a feature about Cruz's family, centering on some home movies that were available to be cut for ads. One interesting thing about Cruz's mom is that despite paternal opposition, she managed to get a degree in math from Rice University and then became a computer programmer. If men asked her to type a letter in the workplace, she'd say, I'm sorry, I don't type, I'm a programmer.

      And. not to leave out the other Mrs. Cruz, when Heidi Cruz was at some forum talking about work-family balance, she said that for her it was crucial to have live-in household help to care for her two young daughters, so that she could work eighty hours a week, as she was doing at the time. Eighty!

      I certainly wouldn't say that Ted Cruz is free of sexism, but unfortunately, next to short-fingered vulgarian (thank you, Graydon Carter and Spy magazine) Donald Trump, anybody looks less sexist. Cruz is accustomed to having both his wife and his mother take their education and careers seriously. That's all I'll say.

    3. I wondered if anybody besides me knew about the long running debate with Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair about Trump's hands. I read about that before the great flop of Rubio's commentary.

    4. Lorraine, just my understanding, but my impression was that merely to have the "pesky" mother around was somehow going to rock their safety and happiness. And wouldn't the child be "confused"? This was a time of black and white morality, of good and bad girls, and legal and illegal children. This was all to prop up the Father Knows Best squishy goodness and rightness of the adoptive family. So yes, I buy Jane's analysis.

      Well, you know Ted doesn't exactly have a little woman for a wife, right? She's a Harvard MBA, former investment manager at Goldman Sachs. So I always wondered. Anyway, somebody gets up from the audience and asks him what he's going to do for women and he launches into the story of his mother who blew off her drunk father to go study math at university and became, according to Ted, one of the first female computer programmers in the US. Also never learned to type so that when d**khead would lumber down the hallway and say, "Sweetheart, take a letter," she'd say, sorry, honey, haven't a clue. Then he basically said that between his wife and his mother, he really woke up to the sh*t women had to put up with in the workplace.

      Of course, he didn't answer the question: what are you going to do for women because you can bet this guy doesn't support universal child care or better mat leave. But it's still nice to hear a guy get it, at least partially.

    5. Yes. Thanks for the story. Working mothers often raise sons who "get it" about working women and make the best feminists at work. Some of my work has been with working women and how they get ahead in business.

      Now the right to control my own body, however, Cruz doesn't let me have that, which I'm sure you know. You must be watching the craziness going on in our country with some interest. Your new guy as PM is pretty cool, BTW.

    6. T2 as we call him is cute as a button.

    7. MrsTarquinBiscuitbarrel, I said "free of sexism" compared to some of the others. It is a Republican line-up, after all. I just find it somewhat idiosyncratic and kind of delightful.

      Yes, I heard Heidi plans to push the envelope if she gets to be First Lady and wants to go back to work. Unlike some people who think every widdle girl "dreams of being First Lady" so she can redecorate the Red Room.

    8. I'd certainly also throw in class and race as major issues affecting whatever laws and regulations were placed upon women who found themselves unmarried and pregnant, particularly in the fifties and sixties. The "taint" of a scandal moved quickly up the hierarchy and ultimately was perceived as a threat to the model family---at least the white middle class family headed up by a male breadwinner. His career and status in the community was on the line, and it was protected by making the "problem" disappear. I'm not certain it has changed a whole lot with fathers from that period---it's something most do not seem to want to revisit or reconcile. I often wonder how many "hidden" and silent fathers are, in fact, driving the need to keep secrecy in place.

  2. This is a wonderful discussion that covers all the bases.

  3. Gregory Luce is right--There are many hidden birth fathers out there. The craziest opposition I met after Birthmark was published was from two men, one, a movie director, the other a Times writer who had a reputation for having affairs. It took me a long time to come around to believing that they were fathers who did not want their adopted children as adults come knocking on their doors. Certainly birth fathers are in the legislature. Certainly birth fathers are among the priests who oppose opening the records. Certainly.

    1. Certainly. And ialso a significant part of the reason why Islam doesn't permit adoption. Patriarchs do not want other men's DNA messing up their sacred lineage.
      Every Sperm is Sacred https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=fUspLVStPbk

  4. My mom worked, most of my friends moms worked, it was what you did to afford a middle class lifestyle in the 50s and 60s when you came up from the immigrant lower class. None of my friend's dads had upper level corporate or professional jobs either, they worked in factories, as carpenters, plumbers, welders,or at low-level office jobs like my dad. My mom was a teacher, my mother in law worked all her life for the Lady's Garment Worker's union as a machine operator. We were not the people portrayed on Mad Men.

    But we lived with or near my grandparents and aunt so we were never left alone or with strangers. I consider myself lucky to have been able to be a stay at home mom. I feel really bad for my daughter in law who has to go back to work when her baby is only 5 months old. She is not happy about it, but they are trying to buy a house in an area where a crummy little ranch house costs a million dollars. No relatives from either side within thousands of miles, so they have to find day care. It is a new world, but not really a better one for everyone.

    I think women should have real choices, those who wish to pursue careers or have to work should have access to affordable day care, but stay at home moms should not be denigrated either as we were in the 70s and 80s when we were seen as losers not getting with the feminist agenda.

    I do think that hidden birthfathers among politicians are certainly a driving force for adoption secrecy, especially among the holier than thou right wing. Remember Strom Thurmond, who had a child with his family's black maid when he was a teenager, and it was covered up for decades while he pushed segregation? Also I do not doubt there are some "father Fathers" among the Bishops and other clergy, at least those who were not doing altar boys.

  5. Here is a quote from Ted Cruz's college roommate: "I would rather have anybody else be the president of the United States. Anyone. I would rather pick somebody from the phone book."

  6. We've gotten on a side track here with Ted Cruz. He does seem to have ...a lot of people who know him who do not like him--including the people he works with in the Senate, George Bush whose campaign he worked on, etcetera. I published this last one, but no more please unless it relates to the issue here.

  7. I want to agree with Lorraine Dusky and Gregory Luce. I am an adoptee. I think the patriarchy being protected is the birth fathers' identity. Too many young men were allowed to get away without taking responsibility. And another group being protected---who you could say were tacitly promised protection---was the birthmothers' parents--the adoptees' biological grandparents. The mothers weren't promised anything---heck, they were deemed not to be capable or worthy of protection, since they engaged in sinful premarital relations---but it was the birthmothers' and birthfathers' parents whose failures as parents were being covered up.

  8. Kirk, don't forget the married guys who mess around.

    1. Don't forget the priests who fooled around. They didn't just do it with 12-year-old boys. In defiance of all its rhetoric around the sacredness of every conceptus and the fact that God chose those people as parents, the RC Church has consistently blocked efforts to unseal adoptees' records. Theory is, they think it will result in more abortions but the evidence sez otherwise so you really wonder.

  9. Hot diggity! I knew *I* wasn't the one promised or wanting of confidentiality or privacy! I KNEW it had to be somebody else. It WAS for everyone else EXCEPT ME. The lying, cowardly dogs.

    Why blame mothers for it? Cause this way they can get and keep adoptees angry at US and cause more division and separation by unwillingness for reunions and reduce the chance of the truth coming out. Someday all this chit is gonna be stopped. Can't wait!

  10. What any surrendering mother was "promised" verbally was whatever she wanted to hear, whatever it took to get the surrender signed. I was promised absolutely nothing, they just rubbed it in that I would never see my child again which made me not care if I lived or died. Many mothers were promised that their child would be able to find them at 18 or 21, and that their child would love and be grateful to them for surrendering. Some were encouraged to write a letter to their child to be put in their file, which instead went into the circular file on the floor and was never seen again.

    Some mothers, or more likely their parents, were promised verbally that "nobody would ever know", but no promises were ever in writing nor on the surrender paper. Today, young moms are often promised open adoptions, even sign official looking contracts, only to learn none of it is enforceable if the adoptive parents want it closed. Adoption law seems unique in that it selectively protects liars and lies, but only those "promises" that perpetuate the status quo of sealed records. In fact as has been noted before, today thanks to internet and DNA searches, sealed records really "protect" nobody from being found.



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