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As our country has focused enormous attention in recent days on the rights of one minority, gay men and lesbians, we continue (alas) to give short-shrift to the decades-long effort to achieve equality for millions of people in another segment of our population: Americans who were adopted into their families.
Change is in the air, however, and a grassroots adoption-reform movement — akin to the one that led to the marriage-equality cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court — is growing. The result is that an unusually large number of states — including Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington — this year have considered, or are considering, bills that would address adult adoptees’ second-class legal status by restoring their right to obtain their original birth certificates. I stress the word restoring because these records were accessible nationwide until the mid-20th Century, when one state after the other (except Kansas and Alaska), began sealing them.
The research is crystal clear as to why that was done — to protect adopted children, most of whom were born to unmarried mothers, from the shame and stigma of “illegitimacy;” and to prevent these women, who were even more shamed and stigmatized, from obtaining information that they might use to interfere with the adoptive family.
Many Americans today, notably including state legislators, mistakenly believe original birth certificates (OBC’s) were sealed for a very different reason — to keep the promise of anonymity given to unwed mothers when they parted with their babies. A big problem with that belief, in addition to its being historically inaccurate, is that it deprives the affected women of the one thing shown by research to help them deal most effectively with their grief and loss – that is, knowing that the children they created are alive and well.
Other work by the Donaldson Adoption Institute, which I have the privilege to lead, buttresses the point from virtually every perspective. For instance, research on Positive Identity Formation concludes that access to core information, such as OBC’s contain, provides important benefits for adopted children’s development. Research on Openness in Adoption finds there are usually gains for everyone concerned, including adoptive parents, when they have more information and contact. And a groundbreaking new report, titled Untangling the Web, recommends that “closed records” laws should be repeated because “the Internet obviates their main contemporary rationale,” which is to keep the parties to adoption from finding each other.
So, in the face of so much evidence that unsealing OBC’s would do a lot of good for millions of people in our country — with little or no indication of resulting harm — why have so many lawmakers in so many states refused to change the status quo for so many decades? From where I sit, the primary answers are mythology, misconceptions and mistaken beliefs, all born during the generations in which adoption was such a deep, dark, dreadful secret that many parents didn’t even tell their own children that they were adopted, and the women who created those children were driven underground because out-of-wedlock pregnancy was considered so disgraceful.
It’s hard to learn much about secrets, so all sorts of erroneous notions have come to be widely accepted, even by some professionals in the adoption field. So here is the bottom-line reality that I hope everyone, particularly legislators, will take into account going forward: The critics of restoring adult adoptees’ right to their OBCs warn that doing so will set off an array of dire consequences — from ruined lives, to increased abortions, to fewer adoptions. Whether they are right is no longer the subject of conjecture or speculation. Very diverse states from coast to coast — from New Hampshire and Maine to Alabama and Illinois, from Rhode Island and Delaware to Tennessee and Oregon — have taken this step, while Kansas and Alaska never sealed their records. So now we can see with our own eyes what calamities transpire when OBC access laws are approved.
The answer, very simply, is “none.”
All this information, and far more, is contained in two comprehensive, research-based reports published by the Adoption Institute, “For the Records” and “For the Records II.” Additional information is contained in testimony that I have provided on behalf of the Institute in various states that have considered OBC legislation in recent years, for example in Maryland.
Viscerally appealing arguments can be made by anyone, on any subject. Compelling anecdotes and singular experiences can be produced by any side, in any argument. So, in order to form the best possible laws, policies and practices, it is vital that we examine real evidence, solid research, and broad-based knowledge.
Those are the elements that have been placed front-and-center, appropriately, in the gay/lesbian marriage debate. It’s long past time for the same to happen during the deliberations in states across our country regarding the right of adopted people to have what everyone else around them assumes as a birthright: access to the simple, essential, unadulterated information about the beginning of their lives.