Memo to adoptee rights opponents: A woman's reproductive choices do not include the right to assign to another human being a lifetime restraining order demanding secrecy.
Some people continue to support secrecy in adoption because they feel the adoptee's right to know the truth compromises a woman's right to make free reproductive choices. The thinking seems to go something like this: A woman today has the freedom to anonymously have an abortion. So why shouldn't a woman have the same freedom to anonymously have a child?
While this reasoning sounds logical on the surface, it doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Once a child arrives, there is another party involved in the scenario, a party whose rights we must also consider. Some members of the pro-life movement seem to think that this third party wouldn't exist if the woman were not guaranteed lifetime anonymity. Yet many social workers have testified that there would in fact be more abortions if women were not permitted to someday learn about the welfare of their relinquished children.
While the data is limited about any link between a woman's decision to abort as opposed to her decision to place her child for adoption, a survey of 1,209 women and comprehensive interviews with 38 women about their reasons for choosing abortion failed to uncover one case in which the promise of confidential adoption was a factor (See research summary here). Also, the abortion rates are lower after access than before in those states that have reopened original birth certificates to adult adoptees.
The choice is not as easy as adoption on the one hand, or abortion on the other, and many in the pro-life community recognize that fact. Referring to a then-recent study, President of LifeNet Services Paul Swope wrote in 1998: "A pressure to end a pregnancy with an adoption does not save a child from abortion, but may in fact, be a determining factor in a woman choosing to terminate the pregnancy. ... A woman desperately wants a sense of resolution to her crisis, and in her mind adoption leaves the situation the most unresolved ... This study suggests that in pitting adoption against abortion, adoption will be the hands-down loser."
If the pro-life movement is serious about promoting adoption, then it should join the nationwide movement to reform adoption so that it better serves the needs of all the people it touches. The closed system has been particularly cruel for original mothers who wonder whether their offspring are safe and well, and for adult adoptees, who wonder why they were relinquished and often need genetic information for their well-being. Members of pro-life organizations may not realize it, but they are hypocritical when they ignore the long-term rights and well-being of the child, who is the theoretical reason, after all, that adoption even exists.
As Catholic Child Welfare Supervisor James L. Gritter wrote in 1995: "Closed records turn adoption's boldest and most honorable claim -- that it serves the best interests of children -- into a flagrant and vile lie. Any system that denies people fundamental information about themselves cannot in good conscience claim to serve them." In the past, perhaps, we didn't realize that lifelong closed adoptions did not serve the best interests of the child, but today, from a vast accumulation of data and testimonials, we know better.
It is not right for the other parties involved in adoption to have complete control over the adoptee's identity for life. Lifetime anonymity is never necessary, and it was never legally guaranteed to relinquishing mothers. There may well be times when it is in the child's best interest to have no contact with her original family as a minor. But when that child becomes an adult, she has the right to know the truth.
It is intellectually dishonest to say that adoptees are a special class of people who therefore must be subjected to a special kind of law. In fact, civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. once defined this type of law as being particularly unjust. An unjust law, said King, is one that a majority of people inflicts on a minority, and one to which the majority is not expected to adhere. And a law is especially unjust, King wrote, when the minority that is affected had no part is designing or enacting that law.
King's analysis of an unjust law matches adoption practice precisely. The "majority" tells the adoptee that her original birth certificate must be sealed, and the adoptee, obviously, had no say in the matter. While all other Americans as adults can apply for and receive their birth certificates, the adoptee cannot because the "majority" has decided that she is ineligible for this particular civil right. Such treatment is offensive and unjust, and it perpetuates negative stereotypes about adoption.
A women's reproductive freedom cannot be enjoyed at the expense of another human being's civil rights. Adoptees have been marginalized long enough, and while many have found their way around legal obstructions at their own expense, we as a society are shirking our duty when we fail to correct past laws that violate the civil rights of a minority group. Let's hope that legislators considering adult adoptee access bills will start basing their deliberations on the facts, and not the propaganda that Right to Life, the Catholic Conference of Bishops, and the National Council for Adoption disseminate at public hearings.
There is no link between confidentiality and the choice to have an abortion. Most relinquishing mothers do not desire anonymity from their own offspring. No other group of Americans is discriminated against because of what they "might do." As Wayne Carp reported in 2007 after studying the social impact of unsealing adoption records in the U.S., Great Britain and Australia, "A vast gap exists between the fear by birth parents and adopted adults that their privacy will be violated and the reality that few or no offenses are committed."
This is the year, I hope, that the facts, rather than the myths, will start to inform the debate.
For more information, see:
Setting the Record Straight, Evan B. Donaldson Institute