Today it was Bingo! again for the headline reads: "The Son My Sister Placed for Adoption Wants to Find Her." What Should I Do?
Well, of course, I answer, Call your sister immediately and tell her! Give her the man's name and encourage her to reach out. Certainly anybody not adopted can understand the primal need to seek out one's own heritage, and help your sister, if she is hesitant, to put herself in her son's shoes.
I recently was involved somewhat in a similar case. A close friend (whose mother appears to have given up a child herself in France, which she kept secret from everyone until her deathbed,but that's another story I'll get to) called to say that one of his nieces was contacted by someone in France who was some sort of relative, and did my friend have any knowledge whom the woman might be connected to? My friend almost immediately knew who the woman was--the daughter that a cousin of his gave up for adoption. In France. When she was fourteen. What should he do, he mused that Sunday evening when he called me rather excited.
Call your cousin, I immediately said. My friend knew all about my work and writings in adoption, having read hole in my heart when it came out. Although it's weird, his mother, the birth mother denier, and I lived a few doors apart for years, and she and I had become quite good friends. But over my work in adoption, my bald insistence that adoptees have a right to know, she and I sharply disagreed, and had verbal battles in letters to each other (hand delivered by intermediaries) over this issue. She was so upset by what I represented, and yes, she did know my daughter Jane briefly, that her son, the man who called me, mused that his mother might have given up a child herself. What else could explain her visceral reaction to mother and child reunions like mine? He even thought he knew who the father was likely to be. She died a few days after telling her known eldest son: You are not my first. And for now, this is where that story ends.
Anyway, my friend did call his cousin, in Europe, as soon as daylight caught up with her in Europe, and she reacted just as every adoptee who is searching wants: She was thrilled. Her son that she raised already knew about this sibling. Within a day or two, she was on the phone with her daughter. A few months later they all met--my friend, his cousin, and the newly found daughter. I was privy to my friend's emotional reaction to the whole drama unfolding, and then got pictures of how much the two women looked alike. Did I mention that the adoptee is a successful artist, and her maternal grandmother was also? That of late she painted pictures with a space theme, and that her half sibling in the US works for one of the space-flight endeavors? The father was a friend of her older brother's at prep school, and had no knowledge of the child at all. Last I heard, he was not denying, but requesting a DNA match.
All this came to mind reading the column in the Times today, because, as I said, Kwame Anthony Appiah previously has solidly come down on the side of privacy for the "birth mother." (That is the phrase he uses, so bear with me.)
Surprise! Not this time. He doesn't come out with a full-throated argument for the right of people to know their heritage, but this time he does make that argument: He notes, "Some people think that knowing your biological ancestry is a basic right, and that the agency and the adoptive parents should not have promised your sister confidentiality." Maybe he's been reading Mirah Riben, Claudia Corrigan D'Arcy, and Jane and me at First Mother Forum! But promised your sister is language straight out of the rule book of those against openness, since promise indicates natural mothers were seeking lifelong anonymity when we had no effing choice; it was a condition of adoption law in all states but two by 1998--Kansas and Alaska.
Appiah points to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that states "as far as possible, the right to know...his or her parents." (Notice the lack of a modifier there, folks.) He quotes another philosopher (his own field at New York University), J. David Velleman, as arguing that "it's wrong to prevent people from knowing their ancestry, because for most people such knowledge plays an important role in the development of personal identity." Apppiah goes on to say that an open or semi-open adoption is better than a closed one; that the man seeking his mother "may have lost something of value in not knowing who his birth mother was;" and that there are medical considerations.
To further hedge his evolving mindset, Appiah points out that the man seeking his mother is a fully formed individual (a father himself, we learn) and that you can "develop a proper identity perfectly well" while being oblivious to your ancestry. Again, I refer you to Appiah's own Wikipedia page to see how rich that comment is. He has always been well aware of his highborn and highly educated, biracial parentage, has benefitted from it mentally, emotionally and financially, and that certainly was critical to his becoming the highly placed (Cambridge, Princeton, etc.) academic superstar he is today.
He goes on to tell the writer that she should tell her sister what's going on, tell the man whatever his sister is willing to share, and whether or not she is willing to communicate with him directly. And he adds that nothing prevents her from telling her niece, a grown woman now--the natural mother's daughter who may or may not know of this half sibling--but if she goes against her sister's wishes, she will be throwing a small bomb into the family. Small it may not be, but that's beside the point. He also notes that since the sister is on Facebook (or Meta, as per a recent announcement), he may figure out who his natural mother is without the woman's help.
All in all, The Ethicist in the Times has come a long way since his first column on adoption. And that is to be commended. Feeling good about him and this tonight. We are making progress, great strides to openness in the last decade, and let's rejoice wherever we find it.
And over in the Modern Love column today, there's a story about donor siblings reconnecting. More about that later, tomorrow if I have the time. Let me just say I was reading the column today to my husband (who is in rehab following a hip replacement), and I couldn't finish it without tears, even though when I first read it this morning I got through it without an outbreak of lachrymose fluids.--lorraine
For another take on adoption by a erstwhile Ethics columnist, see: Bloodlines in Esquire. Or read it at the link below. The writer, Anthony Brandt, is my husband.