"The closed records adoption system was a violation of the human right to know oneself. ... To have birth rights stripped away is utterly immoral and wrong."
Can you imagine a US government entity making such a pronouncement anytime soon? Unfortunately, that scenario is improbable, given that the vast majority of states in America still prohibit adult adoptees from accessing their own legal documents of birth. Yet this conclusion from a comprehensive study just completed by the Australian Institute of Family Studies gives me hope. Progress in America is agonizingly slow, but I'm confident that injustices in the adoption system will one day be recognized here as well.
I have no doubt that if a scientific survey of adult adoptees were to be conducted in the US, the results would be similar to those compiled by the Australian study. The research there included the input of 823 adopted individuals, and you can read the report for yourself here. Recurring often throughout the paper are issues relating to identity and belonging, whether the adoptive home was loving and secure or not. The consensus across the board seemed to be "that everyone has the right to know who they are and where they come from."
According to the study, almost nine out of every ten adoptees surveyed said they had tried to uncover information about their original families, although some kept their searches secret for fear of hurting the feelings of their adoptive parents. I was struck, as I read through the adoptee comments, how closely their thoughts mirror those of adoptees who are currently active in the adoption reform movement, or who recently commented on the New York Times Motherlode article entitled "Adoption, Destiny and Magical Thinking."
"Access to my information is my right, not my privilege," says one Australian adoptee, objecting to the fees she must pay to try and secure information about her own history.
"Why should I have to pay for something that's my right to know?" says another.
"That I had to pay for my own information disgusts me," another comments.
In reacting to the contact vetoes that original mothers had been permitted to place, blocking the release of information, one adoptee asks, "What makes her better than me, in terms of being able to know who I am?" Another adoptee frustrated with the veto system adds, "We have moved forward as a society enough that we should allow adults to deal with adult situations."
According to the Australian study, respondents believed strongly that they had the right to know their own genetic identities, "not just for themselves, but also for their children and grandchildren." The fees they were required to pay to government agencies to access information about themselves angered many, as did the veto system active in some districts.
One interesting finding of the research project was that "adopted individuals appear to have been the 'gatekeepers' of other people's needs/expectations in the adoption circle." In other words, many adoptees feel as if they must protect the feelings of their adoptive parents, who sometimes feel threatened by the existence of the natural family. They also feel as if they need to be extra sensitive to the feelings of the natural family. What then, are they to do with their own needs and feelings?
As one adoptee astutely observes, "The loudest voices and agenda setting come from relinquishing and adoptive parents." The report acknowledges that most adoptees feel as if their experiences and feelings count for little, especially in the matter of adoption policy.
One adoptee laments the fact that many of the same mistakes in adoption and now reproductive technology are still being made, because people are not paying attention to the adult adoptee perspective.
"I think the underlying root of the problem is the baby-supply industry. The same issues are coming up with donor conception, surrogacy, 'selling' children on the internet, especially in America. I'll never know who my father is and I'm seeing people put in similar situations where they will never know who their father is. They're told, but you've been given life, you're better off because we want you. It's about the needs of the parents, not the child."
In conducting studies like this one, in which the adult adoptee perspective is sought and valued, the Australian government is making a concerted effort to come to terms with adoption abuses of the past and to improve the practice of adoption for the future. In America, an overwhelming majority of those who actually live adoption -- adoptees, original and adoptive parents -- believe that adult adoptees should have access to their own original birth certificates. But powerful ideological and special interest lobbies that profit from the practice of adoption continue to drown out their voices, in spite of all the compelling evidence that sealed records do not support the best interest of the child.
But times are changing and more and more people are speaking out. Adoptees are objecting to being left out of policy discussions, and they are objecting to a media portrayal that too often glamorizes adoption without addressing the ethical challenges that need to be confronted. I hope to live to see the day when one of our government bodies proclaims that "the closed adoption system is a violation of the human right to know oneself." It has already happened in Australia. How long will it take America, the long-admired Land of the Free, to catch up?
You might also like:
Ethics of Adoption and Reproductive Technology
An Adoptee's Perspective on Love and Why Truth Matters