Yesterday, the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee in New Jersey in a unanimous 9-0 vote approved the adoptee birthright bill (S873) that would allow adopted people to secure their original birth certificates at the age of 18. Original parents would be able to file documents with the state registrar indicating whether they would prefer to be contacted directly, through an intermediary, or not at all. A similar bill passed in the state of Oregon in the year 2000. Since then, over 10,000 adopted adults have received their birth records, and there have been fewer than five complaints. Other states that have passed adoptee rights legislation maintain similar statistics.
If only the data, instead of the myths and the monied interests, would drive this debate to a successful conclusion! Still opposing this legislation in New Jersey are the NJ Bar Association, the Catholic Conference of Bishops, NJ Right to Life, and unbelievably, ACLU-NJ. Representing the ACLU, attorney Lynn Nowak maintained that a confidential intermediary system would be the correct approach. Marie Tasy, representing NJ Right to Life, concurred, and objected to the fact that the conference preference form is non-binding. Patrick Brannigan, representing the Catholic Conference, believes original parents should have the right to redact their names from the original birth certificate.
I'll post my rebuttals to the opposition's positions in the links following this article. In the meantime, I was encouraged by the compelling, fact-based testimony offered by the bill's supporters, and by the fact that both Committee Chairman Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Senator Diane Allen (R-Burlington) vigorously questioned the opposition's stance.
Although I was unable to attend the hearing, my two sisters and husband were there to present my testimony, and Senator Allen hopes to share it with Gov. Chris Christie's office as this legislation moves forward.
Sister Carol Dowlen, husband Ty and sister Jo Pierson fighting the good fight in Trenton
Here is a copy of the testimony my family presented on my behalf:
Thank you, Senators, for the opportunity to present this testimony in support of the Adoptee Birthright Bill. I am an adopted adult, age 63. I have several compelling reasons for supporting this legislation, the first being that I am currently battling stage 4 melanoma, a medical condition that I have since learned ran in my natural family. Had I known that fact 16 years ago, when I had my first bout with the disease, I am quite sure that both my doctors and I would have been much more attentive to what appeared to be a skin tag by my large right toe.
The second reason I strongly support this law is that through a series of miraculous coincidences, I have come to know two dear sisters who are lovingly supporting me in many ways as I battle this disease. It should not take a miracle to come to know people to whom we are related by blood!
The fundamental question is this: Do we believe adopted adults are worthy of respect? Do we respect them enough to treat them equally by law -- that is to grant them the same access to their original birth certificates that every other full-grown citizen enjoys? And do we respect them enough to trust them to handle their own personal affairs competently?
Surely, it is unjust to treat an entire group of people differently by law than we treat everyone else. Consider, for a moment, how Martin Luther King Jr. defined an “unjust” law. It is one that a majority inflicts upon a minority, said King, and one with which the majority is not expected to comply. The law is especially onerous, said King, when the minority that is affected has had no say in designing or enacting the law. Obviously, we adopted people had no say in crafting a law that would forever bar us from knowing our own ancestry and genetic history.
While equal access to our original birth certificates is a classic issue of civil rights, there is an element of respect that must be addressed here as well. There seems to be a fear among opponents of this legislation that the adopted person is intent upon inflicting some kind of harm upon the original family. This kind of thinking is neither fair nor valid.
First, there is a difference between equal access and reunion. Some adoptees search, some do not, but every adopted person should be treated equally by the law. Equal rights are equal rights. Reunion is a personal choice, one to be made by the full-grown adults most intimately affected and no one else.
I hired a private investigator and sought out my first mother over ten years ago because I felt strongly that I had a moral right to do so. I am not going to jeopardize my own physical and emotional health, and that of my children and grandchildren, because of an outdated law that makes no sense, factually or morally.
The investigator found my original mother quickly, as my parents and I had always had my birth name. My daughter, a doctor, prepared a user-friendly medical questionnaire, and I sent it along with a letter by certified mail. My original mother was one of the few who was not open to continuing contact. She is now deceased, but in fact she was that woman who opponents to this bill say they are most concerned about.
No harm came to her because of the contact I made, a scenario that is supported by the data from every state that has enacted adoptee rights legislation. In Oregon, where adopted adults have had access to their original birth certificates since the year 2000, over 10,000 adopted people have secured their records, and there have been fewer than five complaints. My original mother returned the medical questionnaire to me and called me that same week. We had one helpful phone conversation, and that was the end of our contact.
Our private past -- which we co-own -- is no one’s business except for hers and mine. We handled our past like the adults we both are. Again, there is a difference between basic knowledge, which is a right, and relationship, which is a personal choice.
To look at adoption as a positive option, we need to make sure that the person who is supposed to be the main beneficiary, the adoptee, is treated fairly and with respect, not like a second-class citizen. We need to make sure original mothers are treated fairly and with respect as well, and most, in fact, do want to know how their children have fared in life.
We should not be crafting policy to serve the preferences of a very few, and trampling all over the rights of the vast majority. Instead of saying, “A woman should be allowed to remain a lifetime secret to her own child,” we should be saying, “Every adopted child is worthy of respect and as an adult, should certainly be entitled to equal treatment under the law.”
Instead of saying, “Adoption must be predicated on secrecy and denial,” we should be saying, “The truth, however challenging it may be, may well allow all parties a sense of peace and closure.”
In closing, I’ll say, “As an adopted adult, I respect myself.” But any law that assigns me to a separate category or burdens me with special provisions does not respect me as an autonomous, capable person.
I am proud of my family for taking the time to represent me in Trenton. And I am proud of my colleagues at NJCARE for so intelligently presenting our case. The opponents have no facts to support their position -- none. Please read the links below, and let the Catholic Conference, NJ Right to Life, ACLU-NJ and the NJ Bar Association know how misguided their stance is. Someday, hopefully soon, these institutional opponents will be shown to be on the wrong side of history. Let's all work together to make that happen.
Why I Oppose Confidential Intermediaries
Why do State Bar Associations Oppose Adoptee Rights?
ACLU-NJ Misses the Mark on Adoption
Pro-Life Ideology and Adoptee Rights
Overcoming the Myths that Thwart Adoptee Rights Bills
Here is contact information for some of our opponents:
Patrick Brannigan, Executive Director of NJ Catholic Conference, firstname.lastname@example.org
New Jersey Right to Life: (732) 562-0562, email@example.com
ACLU-NJ: Post Office Box 32159, Newark, NJ 07102, 973-642-2084