The movement towards social justice for adoptees has been agonizingly slow these past 30 years, but there are a few hopeful signs on the horizon. Both the NJ Senate and Assembly passed a decent Adoptee Rights Bill during the last legislative cycle, which would have become law had it not been for Gov. Chris Christie's unfortunate "conditional veto." During the last five years, New Hampshire, Maine, and most recently, Rhode Island have passed laws that enable adult adoptees to apply for and secure their original birth certificates. Such legislation already exists in Alaska, Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Oregon.
A handful of other states allow for partial access or conditional access with restrictions.
More and more people are learning the truth about why birth records were sealed in the first place. They are recognizing that most original families do not desire anonymity, and that those institutions that oppose adoptee rights are usually more concerned about their personal ideologies or their monetary self-interest than they are about the people who are actually touched by the realities of adoption.
Some of the most outspoken opponents to adoptee rights have been Right-to-Life chapters and the State Conferences of Catholic Bishops. But attitudes towards the Bishops' rigid stance on social issues are changing, as the recent pushback against the Vatican's rebuke of its nuns shows. As I have written in other posts, many members of Catholic Charities have advocated for adoptee rights -- in 1992, the directors of Maternity and Adoption Services in all five of the Dioceses in NJ unanimously supported an adoptee rights bill, citing that "it is a human right to have access to the knowledge of who gave birth to you." While the directors' position was quickly dismissed by the Catholic Charities Board as the "opinions of a few workers," their opinions do, in fact, exist in writing.
The pushback against the hierarchy can also be seen in an opinion piece published today in the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled "Church's sexism is a scandal," by Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois.
Bourgeois supports the ordination of women and likens their treatment to the treatment of blacks during his early years in Louisiana. "I and others did not ask why the black members of our church had to sit in the last five pews during Mass or why our schools were segregated," he writes.
At one time, such separate treatment was simply accepted as the "way things are," in much the same way that the church hierarchy sees male priesthood as "the way things are," and in much the same way that some legislators and decision-makers see the separate treatment of adoptees as just "the way things are."
Transforming "the way things are" into "the way things should be" takes a great deal of effort from a great number of people. The first, difficult step is always speaking out, even when it is unpopular and risky to do so. As Bourgeois writes, "I often think about our silence in the days when the black members of our church had to sit in the last five pews. As a priest, I have learned that our silence in the presence of such injustices is the voice of complicity. Sexism, like racism, is a sin. And no matter how we try to justify discrimination, in the end, it is not the way of God."
While many within the church are starting to speak out when they feel their Bishops are behaving in discriminatory ways, the media, also, is finally beginning to question some of the darker sides of adoption. On May 1, Dan Rather aired an investigative piece on HDNet, "Adopted or Abducted," that gave a voice to many original mothers who were coerced into giving up their babies for adoption because they were young and unmarried. They suffered terribly at the hands of the personnel running homes for unwed mothers and unscrupulous agencies. Later, when they tried to contact the offspring they had never forgotten to see how they had fared in life, they were rebuffed by a sealed record system that in most states, remains intact to this day.
While I wish that Rather had made the obvious link between adoption abuses and the sealing of records, his program was at least a start in giving a national voice to those original mothers so harmed by past adoption practices. And in my mind, it shows the absolute necessity for unsealing birth records for adults. Here are two recent comments to the program, one by an original mother and one by an adoptee: