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, email@example.com
New Jersey Right to Life: (732) 562-0562, firstname.lastname@example.org
ACLU-NJ: Post Office Box 32159, Newark, NJ 07102, 973-642-2084
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Monday, January 13, 2014
Carol and her dear husband Jim, who passed away in 2012. I
discovered Carol's identity through Jim's obituary, which I found
when I surveyed public records to see if my original mother had
passed away. Life indeed works in mysterious ways.
Carol prepared a lovely lunch -- split pea soup and homemade chicken salad, as well as an assortment of other salads and dessert. I was so touched by all her efforts, and by the fact that Jo and her husband went so out of their way to spend time with us. We spent the afternoon talking, sharing family stories, and playing a charade-like game called Catch a Phrase. We have spent four whole days together now, with countless messages and e-mails flowing back and forth in between visits. It seems that we have known each other so much longer. Carol and Jo feel like such a part of our family now, to both me and Ty, and once again, I wonder why I am so blessed to have found these two dear souls.
As I continue to battle metastatic melanoma, I try to focus more on my blessings and my day-to-day life than my prognosis. Meeting and getting to know Carol and Jo has certainly been a gift, one that has brought me so much love, peace and closure. Carol unfortunately knows first hand the challenge of fighting a life-threatening disease, as she lost her dear husband Jim to brain cancer in 2012. She has a knack for saying all the right things to me, and one comment in particular stays with me: "Susan," she said, "Love will see you through."
She is so right! We find out at times like this that love is all that matters, and I have been fortunate to find it in many places. I had adoptive parents, and I have an adoptive brother, all who have loved me with all their hearts. My husband is my best friend and the love of my life. As soon as I became sick from my treatments, he arranged to work from home, and he is always here with and for me.
Two of the loves of my life -- my youngest grandchild Joseph and my husband Ty
We are blessed with two daughters, their husbands who we love like sons, and six beautiful grandchildren ranging in age from three to nine. One of my daughters is a doctor, so she is able to stay on top of my treatments and provide extra medical support. My other daughter is a teacher at Masterman High School in Philadelphia. One or the other always accompanies me and Ty to treatments. Both live nearby and check in daily, with frequent visits from the grandkids, who thankfully force us to live in the moment, whether we want to or not!
Joseph with his cousin Ty -- they are best buddies!
Grandchildren and cousins -- Genevieve and Eddie. Can you tell how much they love each other?
The older grandchildren, Emma and Grace. How lucky are we, and how lucky are they?
I have one dear friend who gives me massages twice a week, another who comes to the house to cut my hair. My daughter very ably administered my last hair color treatment! Another long-time friend crafted me an exquisite quilt. Other friends get me out to the movies, for short walks, and for discussions about books. (I love to read!)
I don't want to mislead you here. I am not at all happy that I have stage 4 melanoma. I would like very much to live for another 20 years, as I love my life and all the people in it. But I also know that I have been blessed in many ways and that I am surrounded by a love that sustains me day by day. And as Carol so wisely said, no matter what happens, that love will see me through.
"If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is thank you, that would suffice."
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
No more secrets -- my beautiful sisters Carol Dowlen (left) and Jo Pierson (right)
I returned home several weeks ago from a long and exhausting day at the hospital where I am being treated for metastatic melanoma to find a large package on my front step. My husband Ty brought it inside and opened it. Inside was a soft, warm throw from one of my recently-found sisters, Carol, along with homemade Christmas cookies for my grandchildren. "Thinking about you with love," the note said. "Thought you could use this throw as you rest."
A few days later, after I got a CAT scan showing that my pancreas was inflamed and that we would have to suspend treatment for a while, my other sister Jo, who I first met in late September, sent me a slide show she had assembled from pictures on my daughters', her family's, and my own Facebook pages. Entitled "Surrounded by Love," it featured uplifting music and pictures of our families, my grandchildren, and a few other scenes that stir my soul, like the waves rolling in, one after the other, at the beach. (To see Jo's creative talent, click here.)
Both Carol and Jo have surrounded me with love since we found each other in September, and ours is a reunion story that seems quite miraculous to us all. (You can read more about that unfolding of events here.) But as my daughter Jenn says, "It shouldn't take a miracle to find people to whom you are related by blood." In New Jersey, thanks to Gov. Chris Christie's veto of adoption reform legislation in 2011, the birth certificates of adopted adults remain firmly sealed, and adopted people attempting to unearth their own histories must continue to circumvent the law.
I'll point out here what I've explained in other posts -- that I first contacted my original mother over ten years ago, and while she did share some information, she had no desire to meet. When I found my sisters in the fall, we did not tell my original mother about our reunion, as she was elderly and in frail health, and we had no desire to hurt or upset her. But as Carol said to me during one of our early phone calls, "I am 68 years old -- what is the point of all this secrecy?" In what other area of life, except for adoption, are adults treated like perpetual children, incapable of handling the most personal details of their lives with competency and sensitivity?
When I first started writing about my sisters, I used pseudonyms for them, out of respect for my original mother's desire for privacy. But my original mother passed away at the end of October, and there is no one left to hurt. My sisters' love for me has been such a gift during this emotionally and physically trying time for me, and I believe very strongly that our meeting has an unexplainable spiritual dimension.
As Carol wrote to me last week, "Susan, you have brought such joy to my life in this short time. I do not mind at all your using my real name on your blog. I am so glad everything is out in the open now -- no more secrets."
Carol Dowlen and Jo Pierson, I am so proud to call you my sisters. Your presence in my life does not replace the love I feel and have felt for my adoptive family, but it adds to that love in such a profound way, and it has given me such a lift as I battle this cursed disease.
And Gov. Christie, it is not often in life or in politics that you have a second chance to do the right thing and be on the right side of history. You in all likelihood will have that chance should adoptee rights legislation be approved in the Assembly, just as it was during the last legislative cycle. As I'm sure you know, it has already passed overwhelmingly in the Senate. I hope and pray that you will come to understand this issue for what it is -- the human right for those affected by adoption to navigate their own personal histories without government obstruction and interference.