As You Were Saying … Time to open adoption records

This article was originally posted on the Boston Herald.

I was adopted in the 1950s when adoptions were often shrouded in secrecy. Indeed, while my parents were open with me about my adoption, they told me not to tell anyone. But I was always curious about my genetic origins. My interest was no reflection on my parents, whom I dearly loved; it was merely a powerful desire to know my own history.

When I became a young adult, I requested my original birth certificate and was stunned to see listed on it only my adoptive parents’ names. I soon learned that I was not entitled to access my own original birth certificate.

In most states, an adoptee’s original birth record is sealed. But there is a growing movement to change this. To date, 19 states have passed laws sanctioning some form of open access. In Massachusetts, all original adoptee birth certificates were first sealed in 1974. But current Massachusetts law seals records only for those adult adoptees born in the 33-year period from July 14, 1974, to Jan. 1, 2008, when a new law went into effect.

It’s time to give those confined to that legal limbo the right to their records too.

The reason most states sealed original birth records for adoptees was not, as some would guess, to protect birth mothers. During this time, being unmarried and pregnant generally invited scorn, not protection. The real reason such records were sealed was to protect the child against the stigma of “illegitimacy.”

Over time, the justification for sealed records changed. As more adoptees demanded access to their own vital records, the new argument advanced was that birth parentswere entitled to privacy.

I can understand that concern. It may be that a birth mother has put the circumstances of her child’s birth in the past and wants it to stay there. In some cases, those circumstances may be dark or upsetting. There is also a chicken/egg problem. Some birth mothers have come to expect anonymity. But I cannot accept that those concerns trump the right of a person to fundamental information about their own history.

It is critical for adoptees to have the dominant voice in this debate. The information we are talking about is ours: the legal document recording our births.

No one should force a birth parent to have any contact with their genetic child. Relationships are voluntary. But every child should be entitled to know their genetic heritage.

If the laws change, birth parents will not have any expectation of anonymity and, therefore, their expectations won’t be disrupted. It is important to note that open records do not appear to deter adoptions. Indeed, Alaska and Kansas, which have always had open records, have among the highest adoption rates in the country.

Since the 1950s, we have grown in many ways as a society and one thing that has progressed is our knowledge that secrets and lies are corrosive. It is hard to imagine more foundational and essential information about oneself than the required governmental record of your entry into the world.

House Bill 2045 would allow 33 years worth of Massachusetts adoptees to have that right at last.

Brenda Cotter is a lawyer,
writer, adoptive parent and adoptee from Newton.

 

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