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Monday, April 30, 2012

Adoptee Rights and a Woman's Reproductive Choices

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

Thursday, April 26, 2012

An Elegant Catholic Voice for Adoptee Rights

The Vatican's recent rebuke of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest group of Catholic nuns in the U.S., for failing to speak out more forcefully on social issues like contraception, abortion, and the ordination of women, was disappointing, to say the least.  So is the Catholic bishops' decision to ignore the adoption views of so many of its front-line social workers.  Some thoughtful people have left the Church because of the hierarchy's stubborn refusal to allow new facts to inform its social policy deliberations.  Others have elected to stay and fight.

Among the defectors are former nun Mary C. Johnson and well-known author Anna Quindlen.  Johnson explains, "I left (missionary service) in part because I couldn't believe that God preferred blind obedience to intelligent, creative ministry and growth."  Quindlen in a recent NPR interview explains that at a certain point, she could no longer ignore the child molestation scandals, the church's reaction, and the bishops' "constant obsession with gynecology." ...  "Every time I sit in the pew," she thought, "I ratify this behavior, and I'm not going to ratify it anymore."

Electing to stay within the Church and speak out for social justice -- particularly for adoptees -- is the Rev. Thomas F. Brosnan, an adoptee himself and a priest at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Bayside, NY.  Brosnan's eloquent views on adoption are evident in two of his keynote addresses:  "Strengthening Families," which he delivered in 1996 in San Antonio, Texas, to the National Maternity and Adoption Conference of Catholic Charities USA, and "Dualism in Adoption," a speech he delivered at St. John's University in 2000.

In "Strengthening Families," Brosnan tells what it meant to him personally to discover members of his original family and then talks about the psychological barriers that secrecy creates, even in the most loving of adoptive families.  He shows the depths of his feelings when he writes, "I pray for the demise of the closed adoption system."

He goes on to describe the healing power of truth.  "Acknowledging truth about loss," he explains, "means first of all to give up the lies of what actually happened."  We need to accept events as they really occurred, he says, and not make up explanations such as "you were chosen," that we think might soften the blow.

Brosnan also debunks the myth of birth mother confidentiality, writing: "Why was the name given to me at birth by my birth mother printed on the very adoption papers given to my adoptive parents, if indeed the state wished to assure my birth mother of confidentiality?  Why?  Because confidentiality for the birth mother was not really ever intended.  It is a myth."  ( My adoption papers also list my birth name, as do the adoption papers for my adopted brother.)

Those who attended the 1996 Catholic Charities conference noted that Father Brosnan left the podium to "thunderous and prolonged applause."  It would seem that many within the Catholic Charities fold are conscientious objectors, of a sort.  They probably do not agree with the continuing efforts of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops to block the very adoption reforms that would eliminate the sealed records and the secrecy and lies that corrupt the current system.

In his "Dualism in Adoption" address, Brosnan explains the danger in the type of either-or thinking that often informs the opinions of those who oppose adoption reform.  "The desire to settle for an either/or answer in a complicated world is the essence of dualistic thinking," he writes.

Opponents to adoptee rights bills frequently display this kind of thinking.  In their mind, adoption is the simple answer to complicated problems.  Either you are for adoption, or you are against it.  Either you are a "good adoptee," who accepts that you are less than equal under the law and are grateful just for having been born and taken in, or you are a "bad adoptee," who seeks the truth for yourself and others and would like the laws to reflect best adoption practice.

At its core, adoptee rights is a classic civil rights struggle.  As Brosnan notes, adoptees are "the only citizens who have no right to know the names with which they were born and the names of the parents who gave them birth."   It is unfair and unconstitutional to isolate a portion of the population and deny them the rights that all other citizens enjoy.  Adoption may be complicated, but the right course of action is not.  Adopted adults are people too, and they should have the same right to their birth certificates that every other American has.

God bless the Rev. Thomas F. Brosnan for his honest and wise words.  God bless the members of Catholic Charities who recognize his wisdom.  We can only hope that the Conference of Catholic Bishops will someday see the wisdom there as well.

To read more, see:

Strengthening Families

Adoption & Faith: Dualism in Adoption

Monday, April 23, 2012

Adult Adoptee Access -- A Civil Right Long Overdue

It is hard to believe sometimes that in this year 2012 we in New Jersey are still fighting a political battle over the access of adult adoptees to their own birth certificates.  For so many years now, social workers and psychologists have been telling us that an institution rooted in secrecy and lies is not healthy for any of its participants, and especially for the adopted person.  As I mentioned in another post, the directors of Catholic Charities' Maternity and Adoption Services in all five Dioceses of New Jersey supported the right of adult adoptees to their original birth records back in 1992, 20 years ago! Their rationale is just as valid now as it was then -- even more so since today we have reliable data from states who have changed their laws to reflect best adoption practice.

Here are the reasons the Catholic Charities directors cited:

1.  "We believe it is a human right to have access to the knowledge of who gave birth to you."

2.  "The secrecy surrounding the institution...has produced an atmosphere of shame and consequent detrimental psychological damage to the people involved."

3.  "Our experience as agencies is that the majority of birthparents do not desire confidentiality.  This bill allows the birthparent the right to indicate their desires re: contact.  We do not feel it is just to thwart the many in order to protect the few."

4.  "We find this bill to be the most cost-efficient way to meet the needs of the people involved.  We are besieged with requests from adult adoptees and birthparents for intermediary search services."

The Catholic Charities personnel are right on, of course, and their conclusions are supported by many other front-line professionals.  While I was searching for their letter, I stumbled upon a 1995 correspondence to then NJ Governor Christie Whitman from Child Welfare Supervisor James L. Gritter, MSW, an employee of Catholic Human Services, Inc. in Michigan.

His letter advocating for unsealing records is one of the most moving I have ever read.  Here are some excerpts:

"There is honestly nothing in adoption that puzzles and saddens me more than the support of the Pro Life Community for sealed records," Gritter begins.

"There is no way around an obvious fact.  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."

"We will touch the people we seek to serve when we carry a hopeful and positive message to them that lets them know that they are good people and that there is a better way.  When we offer secrecy, whether we realize it or not, we are telling them that they are dirty and ought to hide their foul deeds.  Is choosing life a dirty deed to be hidden?  If that is the message, the cause is surely lost."

"I raise a perspective not often heard in the Pro Life movement, but that does not mean it is rare.  It means, unfortunately, that this movement is too often closed to new ideas.  What could be more obvious than the fact that times have changed?  How can we in good conscience blindly assume that rote answers from fifty years ago are pertinent in the current reality?"

"The Pro Life community must rethink its odd affection for secrecy in adoption, for there is not a doubt in my mind that the secretive system of adoption powerfully repels families struggling with untimely pregnancy and drives them to abortion for lack of a palatable alternative.  If all we can offer to pregnant women is confirmation of their shame, there is no joy, hope, or love in our work.  If we cannot stand tall for children and honor them with truth, we do not speak for life."

In spite of such compelling arguments from people who work in the field everyday, and in spite of the fact that there have been no adverse effects reported in the states that have restored the rights of adult adoptees to their own original birth documents, the opponents of adoptee rights bills in New Jersey and other states keep advancing the same specious arguments year after year.

Today, since the alleged link between abortion and adoption has pretty much been disproved by the statistics, opponents hone in on the "promise of privacy" given to surrendering mothers.  Yet no legal document guaranteeing an original mother anonymity from her own offspring has ever been produced and entered into evidence, while there has been plenty of evidence advanced to show the original intent of sealing records was to protect the adoptive family from "unwarranted intrusion" and the adopted child from the "shame" of illegitimacy.

It is beyond frustrating to watch legislative decision-makers ignore the data and bow each year to well-funded trade lobbies that profit from the business of adoption, or to Catholic lobbies that are operating from inflexible and misguided premises.  That frustration, I think, is the reason many adult adoptees become so angry.  The powers-that-be, the decision-making folks, are not listening to what they and other members of the adoption circle are saying.  Someone else always has the upper hand, whether his or her position makes any sense or not.

While the culture of adoption is slowly changing, the laws continue to make no sense, and they perpetuate the myths and stereotypes about adoption that are still so prevalent.  It is well past time to bring the practice of adoption into the twenty-first century.  Unsealing the birth certificates of adult adoptees would be a good place to start.

For more information about the history and intent of sealed records, see:

The Strange History of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Records. by Professor Elizabeth J. Samuels


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Catholic Hierarchy Silences Women -- Again

By now you have probably heard that the Vatican last week issued a document chastising the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest group of Catholic nuns in the U.S.  Citing "serious doctrinal problems," church leaders felt that the nuns were not speaking out forcefully enough against contraception, abortion, gay rights and the ordination of women.  LCWR represents 80 percent of Catholic nuns and sisters, most of whom work on the front lines of social services in education and health care.  NETWORK, a Washington D.C. lobbying group that works closely with LCWR, was also criticized for its failure to promote church doctrine.  In accordance with its founding mission, NETWORK focuses on poverty, immigration and health care.

Reminding LCWR that the bishops are the church's "authentic teachers of faith and morals," the Vatican has named Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and two other bishops to oversee "reform."  Sartain's job, apparently, will be to oversee the nuns' activities and ensure that the promotion of "radical feminist themes" is curtailed.  Shocked by the Vatican's conclusion, the LCWR says it is preparing a response.    

This whole scenario reminds me of the response of the Catholic bishops in N.J. when front line workers from Catholic Charities recommended that life-time secrecy in adoption should cease.  Way back in 1992, the executive directors of Catholic Charities in all five dioceses of N.J. signed a letter urging the N.J. Catholic Conference of Bishops to allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates, with no conditions attached.  The personnel from Catholic Charities worked every day with mothers considering adoption and were in the best position to evaluate the effect of more openness.  But sadly, their recommendations were shelved, and the Bishops continue to oppose adoptee rights bills to this day, citing the "birthmother's right to privacy."

The Bishops in New Jersey did not listen to their front-line adoption workers, just as the Vatican is not listening today to the nuns who are out in the field ministering to those who are marginalized and suffering.  As Executive Director of NETWORK Sister Simone Campbell said in an NPR interview, "When you don't work every day with people who live on the margins of our society, it's so much easier to make easy statements about who's right and who's wrong." Simone goes on to say, "What we do as women religious is, we minister to people everywhere who are suffering, who are being discriminated against ... ."  It appears, she says, that the bishops have a different focus and mission.  

Is it not more Christ-like to be inclusive, rather than exclusive?  Is it not more Christ-like to focus on social justice, rather than orthodoxy that has changed in the past, and will surely change in the future, as our knowledge base grows?  At one time, the Vatican proclaimed that there was no salvation outside of the Catholic Church.  Today, this viewpoint is no longer accepted.  Are the educated sisters so wrong in exploring thorny theological questions at their own meetings?  Are they wrong in providing services to any one of our fellow human beings who is hurting?

Women on the front lines possess much wisdom.  As Simone points out, "Women were the first ones at the tomb on Sunday morning.  Women get it first and then try to explain it to the guys."  Unfortunately, the Vatican sees pronouncements like that as "radical feminism."  It's a pity that they are so blinded by their own orthodoxy that they cannot even see what it is they need to learn.    

To read more about this issue, see:

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Silent Adoptee

Sometimes I get really discouraged that more adoptees don't speak out about their second-class status as adults.  Then I have to remind myself that for the first 50 years of my life, I didn't speak out about adoption issues either.  Growing up, I don't think I knew another adopted person.  I was expected to blend in, and for the most part, I did.  I grew up in a close-knit community and loved my family, friends and neighbors.  During my high school years, I played tennis and basketball and continued my love affair with all things sports-related.  In college, I refined my critical thinking skills and fell in love.  I thought about my original family from time to time but worked hard to put those thoughts out of my mind -- the adoption culture during that era did not encourage adoptee inquiries, and I didn't want to be labeled as one of "those adoptees" -- fragile and emotionally deficient.

I married right after graduating from college, and my husband and I built a fulfilling life together.  I had my first profound adoption thoughts, I think, when my first daughter was born.  The birth of a new and unique human being is such a life-changing event.  After our Kate was born, I lay awake half the night, feeling euphoric about her arrival and deeply unsettled about my own personal history.  Where was my original mother?  And how could she ever forget an event like this?

Once again, I pushed those thoughts to the background as I devoted myself to being the best parent I could be.  Three years later, we had another daughter, and the following years were busy, as we built careers, attended school and sporting events, coached teams, helped our daughters to navigate the teen-age years, nursed ailing parents, and did all the things that a life as responsible parents and community members entails.

I really did not confront the reality of the adoption culture until I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in my late forties.  I couldn't have been more shocked had a bolt of lightning come down from the sky and struck our house.  My long-term outlook was unclear.  I had to have my right big toe amputated and have follow-up scans every three months for a few years to ensure the melanoma had not traveled to my lungs or my brain.  I was terrified.  I felt as if I had a sword hanging over my head every moment of the day.  During my hospital stay, I was asked to join a controlled study along with other melanoma patients, and I was ready to participate -- until the doctor learned I had no family medical history.  I was disqualified.

That was the moment in my life when I decided that I would no longer be the victim of an adoption system that makes no sense.  My daughter, who is a physician, urged me to try and obtain my medical history.  Being a naive and eager-to-please type of adoptee, I started my quest through the "proper" channel -- the agency that had placed me for adoption.  The search process became unsettling and offensive as I gradually came to realize that of all the people in the adoption circle, my rights came in dead last.

The social worker eventually informed me that my original mother wanted no contact.  I was absolutely devastated.  I was hurt to the core of my being.  I really did care for this person I wasn't supposed to think about.  Deeply.  "Did you get my medical history?" I asked.  "Well, she wasn't very forthcoming," replied the social worker.  Now I was hurt and very, very angry.  "I am here," I wanted to shout.  "I am a mature adult.  I have a right to ask for my own personal information, on my own terms."

And that is what I did.  I hired a private investigator, who located my original mother quite easily.  My daughter crafted an easy-to-fill-out medical questionnaire, and I forwarded it to my original mother along with a compassionate and carefully-written letter.  While the agency's search had taken nearly a year, my original mother responded to my questionnaire within the week, and the following week-end, she picked up the phone and called me.  We had what I believe was a mutually-beneficial conversation.  We came to an understanding.  We behaved like the adults we both are.

Since that episode, I have become passionate about adoptee rights.  And even though most adoptions today have some degree of openness, I have learned during my advocacy struggles that many adoption myths and unethical practices persist.  For example, one legislator said to me during a private meeting that sealed records must remain in place because "people need to keep secrets."  I wish I had had the confidence then to say, "What people are those?  And what about the rights of the adopted person who signed no contract and did not ask to be yoked to a life-time restraining order?"

Then there was the attorney I had consulted during my efforts to locate my original family.  As the legal expenses grew, he informed me that my chances of success weren't good.  "You've already had cancer," he explained, "so the 'good cause' angle probably won't work.  And wanting your medical history isn't a good enough reason to unseal your records.  Because, he added, then every adoptee would be able to secure her own records."

Aha!  Another illuminating moment.  In a sane world, every adoptee would be able to ask for her own records.  Perhaps the final straw for me came when I consulted a therapist to deal with my anxiety after the melanoma diagnosis.  When we talked about my adoptive status and how that made me feel,  I showed her the "non-identifying" information about my original family that I had received from the agency.  She took one look at it and said rather dismissively, "So, your birthmother was young and uneducated.  What else do you need to know?"  Once again, I felt deeply misunderstood.  Obviously, this adoption thing was something I was going to have to navigate on my own, using my own instincts and common sense.

Many professionals, legislators, members of the public, and unfortunately members of the press just don't get the adult adoptee perspective.  I'm hoping this blog might help to inform them.  I have to accept that all of us involved in the adoption world are at different steps on the journey, and some people are more comfortable than others speaking out.  But I'm hoping that as more and more voices are heard, we can all agree that there is something profoundly wrong with a legal network that makes people feel defensive about learning the very basic facts about their lives.  When and if you have the opportunity, please add your voice to the growing chorus demanding equal rights and equal access for adult adoptees.  They have waited long enough for a level playing field.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Adoptee Rights, DNA, and the Opposition

Why is the importance of DNA recognized in virtually every area of life except for adoption?  University of California medical researcher Gregory Stock, who studies the make-up of genes for a living, writes that "genes are the biggest windows into who we are."  The U.S. Surgeon General encourages all Americans to learn more about their family health histories so that "your doctor can predict the disorders to which you may be at risk and take action to keep you and your family healthy."

Adoptees, of course, can see the impact of genes all around them.  My husband and I have two daughters: one looks like me, and the other looks like him.  One of my daughters is developing the same arthritis in her fingers that both my husband and his mother experienced.  One of my granddaughters looks just like her mother.  Another grandson looks just like his father.

But somehow, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we adoptees are supposed to buy the adoption myth that genes just don't matter.  Those folks who conceived you couldn't raise you, we're told, so just forget about them.  Somehow, they are a part of you, but that fact shouldn't concern you.  The only people who matter in your life are the parents who loved and raised you.

Now I care deeply for the parents who loved and raised me.  But why can't people see the logical inconsistencies in the common and oft-repeated assumptions listed above?  The data from those states that have opened their birth records to adult adoptees tells us that most original parents are quite happy to discover that their offspring have fared well in life.  It likewise tells us that the vast majority of original mothers are more than willing to share information that would help their offspring to live healthier lives.  Why then does the opposition remain so devoted to blocking Adoptee Rights bills that would enable those adopted, as adults, to secure their original records of birth?

Once the facts are acknowledged, the viewpoints of opposing groups like Right to Life, the Catholic Conference of Bishops, and state Bar Associations make no sense.  Right to Life assumes that more openness in adoption will lead to more abortions, but these assumptions have proven false.  There is no link between abortion and adoption, as many studies have shown.  In fact, the rate of abortions seems to decline when there is more transparency in adoption.  Kansas, for example, one of two states that never sealed the original birth certificates of adoptees, has always had a lower per capita abortion rate than any of the "sealed" states surrounding it.  Ten years of data from states that have opened birth records to adult adoptees likewise shows that there is no link between more openness and abortion rates.  Yet Right to Life continues to oppose Adoptee Rights bills; I can only conclude that their ideology blinds them to the factual data we've accumulated.  

Another group opposed to Adoptee Birthright bills is the Catholic Conference of Bishops.  Instead of granting adult adoptees the same right to access their original birth certificates that every other American enjoys, the Bishops suggest that we use mutual consent registries and confidential intermediary systems.  Once again, we have a host of studies showing that mutual consent registries are highly ineffective, and that confidential intermediary systems are demeaning and unfair.

If you are not adopted, try to imagine, for a moment, a complete stranger in charge of the most personal and intimate details of your life.  Imagine that stranger having access to your legal birth certificate and your personal history right in front of her, and then imagine that you are not allowed, by law, to see it.  To get to this point in your quest for information, you have had to pay a $400 fee. Some have questioned your psychological make-up and characterized your search for your own original parents as "idle curiosity."   I can't even put into words how insulting and disempowering some of these agency "confidential intermediary" programs really are.

The Catholic Bishops, perhaps, have good reasons for opposing Adoptee Birthright bills, but their purported concern for birth mother privacy is once again not supported by the facts.  Could the Bishops' opposition have more to do with the widespread scandals concerning unethical adoption practices that have recently surfaced in Australia, Ireland, Spain and Canada, and that are just now coming to light here in America?  Given the Bishops' track record on other social issues, the answer, sadly, I think is yes.

After the Catholic lobbies, the next significant group to oppose Adoptee Birthright bills is the state Bar Association.  Like the Bishops, bar association representatives testify that they are concerned about birth mother privacy.  They seem surprised to learn that hardly any original mothers say they do not wish to be contacted in the contact preference forms that states restoring adoptees' civil rights provide.  Even more significant is that they do not seem to care.  Could the opposition of the Bar Associations have more to do with the $30,000 to $50,000 fees that couples sometimes must pay to negotiate an adoption?  Again, as in the Bishops' case, it seems likely that the opposition is based on its own self-interest, and certainly not on "the best interest of the child."

Advocating for adoptee rights is frustrating and exhausting.  In the political arena, the voices of those actually affected by adoption are almost always overshadowed by the voices of those who profit from adoption, or those who base their opinions on unyielding ideologies, which are in turn supported by false assumptions.  Meanwhile, year after year, the civil rights of adoptees, who cannot afford the time or expense to lobby full-time, continue to be violated.

It is unjust to continue treating a whole class of people differently from all other Americans.  The state has no right to ban me from securing my own original birth certificate, or to try and obstruct me from knowing my own genealogy.  We need more adoptees, original parents, and adoptive parents to join the state-by-state movements to unseal birth records for adult adoptees.  We need to challenge pervasive adoption myths and acknowledge the facts. As human beings, we are products of our nurturing and of our DNA.  Every member of the adoption triad deserves to be treated with respect.  And adult adoptees must be recognized by law as the mature, autonomous people they are.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Adoption, Anger and Denial

I feel a great deal of gratitude for my life and my upbringing in a stable, loving home.  Yet I feel deeply uneasy about the practice of adoption.  Feeling grateful on the one hand and critical about adoption practice on the other are not mutually exclusive feelings.  Unfortunately, on-line discussions in response to adoption stories in the media (Abducted Versus Adopted: For 1.5 Million of U.S. Adoptees, What's the Difference?Adopted or Abducted?) often degenerate into emotional battles between those who would defend adoption as it is and those who have been deeply scarred by the institution.  Adoption is a subject fraught with emotion -- the way it has been and continues to be practiced guarantees that fact.

I think everyone familiar with the subject can agree that many original mothers have been treated horribly by the adoption industry.  Most can likewise agree that many adoptees have suffered greatly from being cut off completely from their own personal histories.  The only humane and just solution, in my mind, is to unseal records and allow adoptees as adults to secure their own birth certificates.  The records should never have been sealed in the first place, and we know now they were never sealed to protect the original parents -- they were sealed to protect the adoptive families from "unwarranted intrusion" and to sometimes spare the adopted child the "shame" of illegitimacy.

My unease about adoption stems from several sources.  Growing up, I learned early that in inquiring about my original mother, I was entering into dangerous territory.  So I learned to sublimate my own feelings, which in turn led to bouts of depression when I was a young adult.  At that point, I was so steeped in denial -- a denial that was really forced upon me by the closed adoption system -- that I didn't really know what my own feelings were.  Later, I became really angry about adoption practice, when as an older adult, I was unable to access medical records.  Dealing with my agency was what turned me into an adoptee activist.

One of the first questions the social worker asked me as I started my inquiry into my genetic roots was,   "Why do you want to know?"  Immediately, my antenna went up.  Apparently, I needed to pass some kind of psychological fitness test in order to continue this quest.  Once again, I did not feel entitled to my own feelings.  Why in the world wouldn't I want to know?  This was my original mother we were talking about.  During my entire interaction with the agency, one fact became abundantly clear.  I had no legal rights at all.

Eventually, I found my original mother through a private investigator.  She had lived her entire life steeped in denial, just as I had.  The agency had described her to me as an "angry woman."  Is it any wonder?  We did not have a Norman Rockwell reunion.  We had a brief phone conversation.  She was able to say, "I love you," but it seems she needs to continue coping with her past through denial, the only emotion that was available to her during the time period I was relinquished.

I now at least know the truth, and I do know something of my medical history, so I am more fortunate than many older adoptees.  Do we really need all these legal obstructions in place to prevent adults from interacting with other adults, who like any other human being always have the right to say, "No."  State-sponsored secrecy not only forces the participants in the adoption process to live a lifetime of denial; it allows adoption fraud and dishonesty to take place in a market that receives little oversight and is desperate for healthy newborn babies.

One of the most objectionable parts of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's "conditional" veto of the Adoptee Rights Bill last summer was his provision giving original mothers going forward the opportunity to remain hidden forever.  In the first place, how realistic is such a stance in today's open and virally connected society?  A private investigator found my original mother within a week.  In the second place, it is unjust to tell an innocent child she can never know who she really is -- from birth until death -- and it is really wrong to make a human being have to defend herself for wanting to know something so basic about herself.  And finally, a contract sealing lifetime secrecy assumes that original parents and their offspring must remain unknown to each other for all time -- it denies all parties, as adults, the opportunity to come to understand each other.

Some people are successful at coping with their lives through denial, and some are not.  I found I could not live my life rooted in a lie, and I became a much healthier human being when I recognized that fact.  Do I love my adoptive family?  Completely and without reservation.  My parents loved me fiercely and did their best during a time when openness in adoption was not encouraged.  Am I ambivalent about the practice of adoption?  Absolutely.  The laws that govern adoption are in need of a major overhaul, and we need many more adoptees, adoptive parents and original parents to join the state-by-state movements to unseal birth records.  It is the only way to begin addressing the many injustices -- on so many levels -- that the practice of adoption has perpetuated.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Living History Day

Last week, two of my granddaughters, ages 7 and 6, participated in Living History Day at their elementary school.  They enjoyed dressing up as immigrants and talking about how America has come to be the heterogeneous country it is.  Later that evening, they asked my daughter, their mother, "Where do our people come from, Mom?"

"Well, your dad's mom immigrated here from Lithuania," she replied.  "What about Nana (that's me)?" they asked.  At first she explained that my father's parents came from Scotland.  And then she thought to herself -- "Wait, that's not quite true."  The truth is my father's parents did indeed immigrate from Scotland, but I am adopted, not related to my father by birth.  Who knows from where my biological parents might have come?  And some might add, "Who cares?"

And here I will answer emphatically, "I do!"  Why in the world should I be denied access to my own personal history just because I happen to be adopted?  The traditional answer from some in the adoption industry is, "The parents who raised you are your real parents."  The assumption is that in pursuing my own history, I am somehow expressing disloyalty to my adoptive family.  And indeed, because I am an older adoptee, in my sixties, I was socialized that way.

My mother and father loved me completely and provided me with many educational and cultural opportunities.  My mother's motto was, "Look forward, not backwards," and she preferred not to dwell too deeply on issues that were complicated or unpleasant.  She wanted to think of herself as my only mother, and I don't blame her, although I did suffer from having to keep my private thoughts to myself.  I was adopted in 1950, when the feeling was the adoptee comes to her family as a blank slate;  what came before the adoption is not relevant.

Now, from countless research studies and testimonials, we know better, although some adoptive parents still become defensive about adoptees wanting access to their own roots.  "It just doesn't matter," they insist.  And the industry, through State Bar Associations and the National Council for Adoption, continues to fight ferociously against adoption reform bills that would give adoptees as adults the right to receive their original birth certificates.  An amended birth certificate, a legal document rooted in a lie, they say, should be sufficient.

We know for a fact that more openness in adoption actually leads to fewer abortions.  We know for a fact that biological mothers were never guaranteed legal anonymity from their own offspring, and we know for a fact that the vast majority of biological mothers are open to inquiries from their adult sons or daughters.  So why the continuing resistance?

The facts are the facts.  The truth is the truth.  I have adoptive parents, whom I loved dearly, and I have biological parents, whom I wish I had been permitted to know.  When I had my own two daughters, I wanted to know my original mother acutely.  But I didn't look for her until I was in my fifties, after I had experienced a serious medical problem and was unable to retrieve any meaningful information from the agency that had arranged my adoption.

My original mother was that woman the opposition says it so wishes to protect.  She had never told anyone about me except for her own mother.  She did not wish to have continuing contact, which is her absolute right.  She did, however,  answer my questions and provide me with the truth, a gift that has provided me with peace and emotional closure.

To those who continue to oppose reform,  I say I and other adult adoptees can be entrusted with the truth.  We are part of our original mothers' private histories, not entities who exist outside of that reality.  And today, through my own efforts, I can answer my granddaughters' questions honestly and without hesitation.  I grew up right here in South Jersey, but my roots are in Denmark, where one of my original parents was born and educated.  Such is my living history, and it belongs to me.