Adoptee Rights Demonstration Today in Chicago

Adoptee Rights CoalitionThe Adoptee Rights Coalition has organized a demonstration to take place today during the National Conference of State Legislators in Chicago. Specifically, they will be trying to open the legislators’ eyes to the plight of adult adoptees in forty-four states who are not allowed to have a copy of their own original birth certificates.

What is an “original birth certificate?”

Many people who are not intimately affected by adoption do not realize that adopted people have two different birth certificates. Whenever a child is born, a birth certificate is issued to legally record that birth. We all know that, right? At minimum, the birth certificate lists the baby’s name and the name of the child’s mother.

If that baby is later adopted, a new birth certificate is issued which lists the child’s adoptive name, and his adoptive parents’ names as mother and father. The original birth certificate–the one that lists who actually gave birth to the child–is then sealed in a file controlled by the state. In the vast majority of cases, the adopted person cannot legally obtain a copy of his real birth certificate, not even as an adult, not even if he’s dying and his biological relatives might be able to save his life.

Why is this the case?

Groups who oppose allowing adoptees to have their own birth certificates will tell you it’s because birth mothers were promised secrecy and privacy. They’ll tell you that if young, at-risk mothers think their relinquished kids might come looking for them one day, they’ll likely not have their babies at all but abort them instead.

I can’t possibly list here all the reasons these statements are false, but I can tell you that the reading and research I’ve done myself has convinced me they are false. Not only were most birth mothers never promised secrecy, they don’t even want it. Many birth mothers never really even wanted to relinquish their babies in the first place, but were coerced into doing so.

The real reason, in my opinion, for the sealing of original birth certificates was to protect the adoptive family, because adoptive parents, especially back in the day when these laws were created, were very afraid that birth families might come forward after the adoption and try to take their children back. Adoption agencies wanted prospective adoptive parents to feel secure with the process of adoption, because, let’s face it, a lot of cash changes hands when children are adopted. The best way to make adoptive parents feel secure was to guarantee that birth families would never be able to track down their relinquished children. Thus, original birth certificates are legally sealed and altered birth certificates showing the adoptive parents as the legal parents are issued.

What the writers of these laws never considered was that the adopted babies would grow into adopted adults who don’t appreciate having their true identities forever under lock and key.

Why are original birth certificates so important to adoptees?

This issue is important to me because knowing my true family identity is important to me. As a child, I was acutely aware of the differences between me and my adoptive parents. We looked different. We were interested in different activities. We reacted differently to situations. We processed information differently.

In doctor’s offices, I had to write “N/A” on the lines for family medical history, then explain that I was adopted. The first picture of me is as a three-month-old; what happened in my life before that time is a black hole. I felt no connection to my adoptive parents’ family trees; I could not join the conversation of who looked like which cousin or who acted like grandma.

I saw the first person who looked like me when I had my first child at the age of thirty-three. And I realized that he would have the same black hole of missing information about his ancestry and family medical history that I had.

I was lucky to be able to locate my birth mother without having my original birth certificate, because I had some pretty detailed non-identifying information from the agency that handled my adoption (every adoptee is legally entitled to this) and a key piece of identifying information my adoptive parents were accidentally given when they adopted me.  Many adoptees are not as lucky as I was and are not able to figure out who their biological families are without their original birth certificates.

Even after I reunited with my birth mother, I still wanted a copy of my original birth certificate. I wanted that written proof. I wanted to feel like a whole person, like I was really born from another human being just like everyone else rather than picked from a lineup of cribs, which is how I had always pictured my adoption. And my birth mother wanted it too, to prove she wasn’t crazy, that she really did have a baby, that it all wasn’t just some nightmare she had imagined. Together we petitioned the Ohio probate court, and I now have my original birth certificate. But I couldn’t have gotten it without her consent. And she hadn’t even known she could file her consent until I made her aware of that fact.

So, if you have yours, what’s the big deal now?

Before I went through my own birth family reunion, I didn’t understand how big this issue was. I had no idea how many other people like me are out there struggling to come to terms with their own identities, held back by these antiquated laws that serve no one’s best interest. I didn’t know that even though we hear the term “open adoption” a lot today, altered birth certificates are still being issued, and open adoptions often don’t remain open very long after the adoption transaction is finalized. I stand behind the effort to unseal all adoptee original birth certificates because every person deserves to know where they come from. It is not the business of any state to keep family members from knowing each other or to protect those who never asked to be protected.

Most of all, I support the Adoptee Rights Coalition because adoption should be, first and foremost, about the children being adopted and what is in their best interest. It is not acceptable to violate the rights of adopted people in order to protect the rights of either birth or adoptive parents.  We adoptees have the right to know where we come from and to deal with our own family business.

If you’d like to read other opinions on this issue, please see this list of blog posts compiled by a birth mother who also supports open birth records for adoptees.

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11 thoughts on “Adoptee Rights Demonstration Today in Chicago

  1. Karen, great post! I completely sympathize with you and your efforts, in part because I know my own personality and how much I would want the information you want for other adoptees. In part as a sympathetic response to my kids and brother who are all adoptees. I think you gloss over the part a bit, though, about birth mothers who were promised secrecy. I am from the generation where my friends were some of the birth mothers who were promised secrecy and who were relieved to have adoption as a choice available for their babies. That said, 2012 is a far cry from the 1960s and early 70s (when I am talking about) and I’ll bet that many of those women have changed their minds today, but that is just a guess. Knowing people who were promised secrecy, I still am for the opening of birth records (my son who, as I said, was adopted is NOT in favor of it BTW), but I think it’s good to acknowledge that so many of these women really did think their informaiton would remain sealed and secret.

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    1. Luanne, thank you for your comment. My point of view regarding secrecy promised to birth mothers comes from a few different sources.

      My own birth mother, with whom I have reunited, was a teenager in the late 1960s when I was born. Not only was she never “promised” secrecy, she didn’t want it. In fact, she didn’t want to relinquish me at all. She was a powerless child herself, who was coerced into surrendering her own first child. She named me when I was born, and she thought that name would stay with me, which it did not. She did not understand that when I was adopted, my adoptive parents would rename me and my birth certificate would be altered. As I said, she was not “promised” secrecy; she was, in fact, instructed that she should never try to contact me in the future, that she had no right to have a role in my life once she surrendered me. Again, she was still a child herself when this took place, not of legal age to do anything without her parents’ approval. When I contacted her, she was ecstatic that I had found her. She has thanked me over and over again for doing what she never felt she had the right to do.

      After I found her, I became aware of the book The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler. I suggest that you read it, if you haven’t already, to gain a wider perspective on the experience of birth mothers during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I was truly shocked to learn how many other young women had experiences similar to my own birth mother’s.

      My husband also parented a child from Korea, who he adopted in the 1970s. In researching his adoption, I discovered that many times those children who were labelled “orphans” were not really orphans at all. Their biological mothers were very much alive, though they felt they had to give up their children for various reasons. I think some parents who adopted these children were misled, and I also think these “children” who are now actually adults have every right to know about their own biological families.

      I have also done some research on the origin of the sealed records law in my home state of Ohio and have learned that the law was actually drafted in part by adoptive parents who were wary of their new families being disturbed by their children’s birth relatives.

      Regardless of whether or not a birth mother wants privacy–in other words, wants not to be contacted by her surrendered child–I do believe that every person has a right to know his/her own identity and lineage. Adoptees are the only class of people I know of who must beg to know their own identities, who need to be granted permission to know who they really are and where they came from. I do understand that it’s probably very difficult for someone who’s always known who they are and where they come from to imagine how it feels to not know who your parents are, who your ancestors were. It creates a feeling of not really being connected to anyone or any place. And then, when we have children of our own, we pass that disconnection down to them. What was or wasn’t promised to birth parents or to adoptive parents is really irrelevant. It is simply not right that one group of people (adoptees) be denied the basic civil right of having their own birth certificates in order to assauge another group, no matter who that controlling group is–birth parents, adoptive parents, adoption agencies, religious organizations, etc.

      You mentioned that your adopted son is not in favor of opening birth records. Of course, I don’t know whether your son is a child or an adult. In any case, if he has no interest in knowing his own biological history, I think that’s fine. In fact, other adoptees in my own family feel the same way. That doesn’t make it ok, however, to deny those of us who do want to know our history.

      Again, I appreciate your comments and I’m glad we’re having this discussion. Hopefully we can learn from each other.

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  2. Karen,your story is fascinating. The book sounds great, and I will look for it, though I’m sure it will make me angry to read it. The reason I wrote was because I was the confidante of several girls who did “go away” to have their babies with the idea that they would be adopted. Because we were kids and girls that age tend to tell their closest friends how they feel (arguably more than they do their parents)I was told what went on and how they felt about the situation. It sounds like your birth mother (and many others, according to the book you mention) was in a completely different situation from my friends. My friends’ feelings were shaped by the environment at the time and their plans for their futures. They were also immature minors, and I expect that their feelings have probably changed a great deal since those days.
    As I mentioned (from your response it’s unclear to me if you heard me say this), I am completely in agreement about the unsealing of birth records, although for some adoptees, the subject is very complex. My son is 28 and adamantly believes it’s a bad idea. My brother is middle-aged and has conflicted feelings about it. I believe they are entitled to their feelings. I have a different personality than the two of them, and if it were me I would search and search to find what I could–and I would demand the information that I felt was my birthright.
    Good luck to you with your work on the legislation.

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    1. Luanne, I appreciate what you’re saying about your friends who surrendered their babies. I have read some accounts recently by birth mothers in similar situations and I’d be interested in reading more if you’re aware of any sources. I do realize that there is a range of opinions among birth mothers, just as there is among adoptees and adoptive parents. I do question, though, the assumption that some people make that all or most birth mothers feel they were promised secrecy and/or desire secrecy. Literature that I’ve read on the subject disputes that claim (see this report from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute: http://adoptioninstitute.org/research/2010_07_for_records.php).

      I would ask a birth mother who does want to maintain secrecy, why should your desire to keep your name secret be deemed more important than an adoptee’s desire to know his/her own biological identity?

      I appreciate your support regarding opening birth records. I did pick that up in your first comment. I’m just trying to explain why this issue of “secrecy” is in conflict with adoptees’ efforts to obtain access to our original birth certificates.

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      1. The first book I read on this subject was Twice Born by Betty Jean Lifton. Her story is one of the early ones about the search for one’s birth mother. The book was first published in 1973, so this is a look at adoption in the mid-twentieth century. Now there are a lot more books like this, but in those days books like this weren’t being published, so it was really eye-opening.

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