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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Equal Rights for Adoptees -- Petitions and Movements

I recently signed the petition to declare July 28 National Adoptee Equal Rights Day.  You can sign too right here.  I'm not sure how much petitions like this help our cause, but along with other activist movements like the upcoming demonstration in Chicago by the Adoptee Rights Coalition (ARC), they surely can't hurt.

The petition is sponsored by the American Adoption Congress (AAA), RI-CARE, NJ-CARE, and Adoption Crossroads, Inc., and it begins with a concise and coherent summary explaining why sealed records in adoption are discriminatory and unacceptable.

The more voices that can be counted in these reform efforts, the more likely it is that the media and legislators will begin to take note.  The Adoptee Rights movement continues to be misunderstood in many circles, but it is a classic civil rights struggle.

As I wrote in my comment at the petition website, "This issue has been politicized by misinformed groups with ideological agendas, and by agencies and attorneys who feel it is in their best interests financially to maintain the status quo.  The facts can be easily secured by viewing the data from states that have restored adoptees' access to their own legal documents of birth."

I have compiled some telling facts for the following articles, and you can view them for yourself at these sites:

Pro-Life Ideology and Adoptee Rights

Why do State Bar Associations Oppose Adoptee Rights?

Sealed Records Are Wrong. Period.

ACLU-NJ Misses the Mark on Adoption

Sealed Records -- A Secret the Industry Would Like to Keep

NCFA Is Not the "Expert" on Adoption Issues

Adult Adoptee Access -- A Civil Right Long Overdue

In the meantime, I'd like to repeat the thoughts of civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., who once defined an "unjust law" as one that a majority of people inflicts on a minority, and one with which the majority is not expected to comply.  Adoptees, obviously, comprise a minority group -- it is estimated that they make up 2 to 2.5 percent of the population.  And the majority has decided that this minority group is a special class of people who therefore must be subjected to a special kind of law.  While all other Americans as adults can freely apply for and receive their original birth certificates, at minimal expense, the adoptee cannot because the majority has decided that she is ineligible for this particular civil right because of her unique status.

And if the adoptee has a particular medical need?  While she is feeling totally vulnerable as a result of her medical condition, she can petition the courts for information at her own expense, but in most states, her success depends totally on the discretion of the judge.  What if she would like to explore her own genealogy, as many other Americans love to do, as evidenced by the success of such websites as and the recent NBC show "Who Do You Think You Are?", in which celebrities traced their roots.  Sorry, says the majority -- as an adoptee, her personal past is none of her business.

Is it not possible for the majority to see how unjust this system is, particularly since it has now become clear that in surrender documents, original mothers were never promised anonymity from their own offspring?  In defining an "unjust law," Martin Luther King Jr. went on to say that a law is particularly discriminatory when the minority that is affected has had no part in designing or enacting the law.

Obviously, adoptees never had any part in designing the sealed record laws that would forever yoke them to a lifetime restraining order preventing them from knowing their own ancestors and genetic make-up.  The majority enacted that law long ago, when the adoptee was a helpless and vulnerable baby, incapable of speaking for herself.

It is mind boggling that in our current open society, in which it is clear that the vast majority of original parents, both past and present, do not desire anonymity from their own offspring, that legislators continue to resist the efforts that would update the draconian and clearly unjust laws still on the books in most of the United States.

What can we do to change the situation?  I try to educate people and secure new allies through this blog.  We can sign on-line petitions and add our personal comments.  We can write letters to the editor and challenge the media when it glorifies adoption without presenting its complexities and inequities.  We can send donations to the Adoptee Rights Coalition (ARC), which will demonstrate on August 6 in Chicago at the National Conference of State Legislatures Annual Summit.

The purpose of the demonstration on the sixth and activities through August 9 is to allow adoptee rights proponents to meet directly with state legislators and their staffs, educating them about the need for adoption reform.  The focus is on reinstating the adopted adult's right to access his or her own legal document of birth.

I can't attend the demonstration in August, but I'm going to send a donation this week.  ARC is a nation-wide grassroots movement, and city permits, booth rentals, and educational materials cost money.  I wish my friends great success in their efforts.  You can learn more about ARC's initiatives and how to support them here.

Trying to change a culture is frustrating and overwhelming at times.  We all have busy lives, and we can only do what we can do.  Alone, we can't accomplish much, but together, we can and will have an impact.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Maybe "Angry Adoptees" Are Just Well Informed

Sometimes people have the mistaken impression that adoptees who work for adoption reform must be angry all the time, or maladjusted, or both.  Or maybe the adoptive parents did something wrong.  In my own case, all three impressions are incorrect.  While the sealed record system does offend me, and its proponents cause me great frustration, I don't believe any of the people who know me well would describe me as an angry person.  Now that I am 62 years old and have a great deal of experience in many facets of life, I can say with confidence that I seem to be better adjusted than many!  And my adoptive parents were dear, well-meaning people who worked hard to be the best parents they could.

I became involved in adoptee rights over 10 years ago, several years after my inability to secure my medical history compromised my medical treatment for stage 2 malignant melanoma.  I would say that before I started to search for my birth family in earnest, I most definitely bowed to the cultural pressure "to leave all that alone."  My parents adopted in an era when openness was not promoted, and it was clear to me from an early age that they really weren't comfortable with the topic.  So I did "leave all that alone" and tried to put it out of my mind.

I was successful to a point, but for many years I suffered from low-grade depression, a condition I now believe emanated from my feelings of powerlessness;  I just didn't feel free to do what I really wanted to do for myself -- tap into my own history and explore my roots.  This feeling became quite strong for me when I had my first child -- but I didn't have the time or confidence during that period to initiate a search.  I really didn't even know how to begin.

After my medical crisis, my daughter, who is a physician, urged me to try and secure my family health history.  My adoptive mother supported my efforts, and I suppose I finally felt validated to do what I had wanted to do many years before.  It was the searching process itself that taught me how powerless we adult adoptees really are and how much discrimination we face at every turn.

I tried the agency route, and I briefly tried the legal route.  The attorney I consulted made it clear that I didn't have much of a case because "I had already had cancer."  As my very close friend said to me at one point during my frustrating journey, "You have no rights."  And she is correct -- I don't.  The sealed system and the "authorities" -- agency social workers, supervisors and attorneys -- force adopted adults to behave like child-like beggars in order to receive the most basic facts about themselves.  The system as it now stands is preposterous.

A private investigator helped me to locate my original mother within one week's time -- my adoptive parents had always had my birth name.  And what did I find at the end of all that agency and legal stonewalling, at my own expense and after a great deal of time?  I found an older woman who did not feel capable of meeting face-to-face, but who felt comfortable enough to share medical and some personal history in a phone conversation that she initiated after she received a sensitive, certified letter from me.

What was the point in keeping her identity secret from me for all those years?  After our conversation, I felt a great weight lifted from me -- I knew the truth at last and finally felt that no one was trying to pull something over on me.  Did our conversation harm my original mother?  I don't think so.  I found her inability to meet with me disappointing, but not surprising, considering the era in which she relinquished.  She is a human being entitled to her own feelings, as am I, and like it or not, we share a connection.  We are both adults, for heaven's sake.  We can handle our own private affairs without state or agency intervention.

Those who continue to oppose adult adoptee access either misunderstand the issue or feel it is in their best interest financially to maintain the status quo.  There is no data to support the perpetuation of a system that has caused great harm to many original mothers and adoptees.  The current system is entirely unfair for adoptees, and it frustrates many more people than it protects.  This we know for a fact from the statistics kept in states that have restored original birth certificate access to adult adoptees.  In Oregon, for example, where birth certificates have been available to adoptees 18 and over since 2000, fewer than one percent of original mothers have filed no contact preference forms.

So yes -- the sealed system and its advocates do make me angry, and I'll continue to speak out until that system changes.  But am I angry all the time?  Of course not!  I have spent many magnificent week-ends at the New Jersey shore this summer with my husband, our two daughters and their families, and other assorted friends and family members.

I have enjoyed seafood fests prepared by my son-in-law and his close friends:  clams on the half shell, grilled salmon, Jersey corn and tomatoes.  I have spent mornings on the beach with my daughters and their children, as we were treated to cooling off-shore breezes, delightful water temperatures, and smooth waves for body surfing and boogie boarding.

I'm not sure I can find the words to describe the joy and exhilaration that come along with catching the perfect wave and riding it into the beach.  I feel that exhilaration when I catch a wave myself, and I feel it all over again when each of my grandchildren catches a wave for the very first time.

Life is good for me in many ways, and I am generally a happy person.  When I had my cancer scare, the chances were 50-50 that the melanoma would return, in my lungs or in my brain.  It didn't.  I am fortunate to be here, and I never take my life or my blessings for granted.

But none of that negates the fact that I am deeply offended by a system in which adopted adults are still unable to secure their own legal documents of birth.  State and agency officials continue to hold the key and guard the door to my own personal history.  An adoption system that treats adult adoptees as if they were little children incapable of handling the personal details of their own lives does make me very angry.  But not because I have some kind of personality disorder or I had deficient adoptive parents.  I'm angry because the power brokers in adoption and some legislators refuse to listen to those of us who live adoption, and they refuse to change a system that ill serves the very children that system is supposed to serve.

Like all unjust systems, this one will eventually evolve, just as it has in more enlightened states and countries. More and more "angry" (I mean well-informed) adoptees are speaking out, and many original mothers and adoptive parents are joining the movement.  We may not have the political power that opponents to the reform movement possess, but we do have the truth and the facts on our side.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Pro-life Ideology and Adoptee Rights

There are some ideologies that simply can't be moved by any amount of data or research.  The pro-life position that an adult adoptee's access to her original birth certificate will somehow lead to more abortions seems to be just such an ideology.

Recently, in response to one of my posts, a commenter wrote this:

"The simple fact is birth mothers (and fathers when involved in this decision) have made a decision, a choice, to give up their child to the adoption process.  Mothers have a right to choose.  In fact, 100% of all birth mothers have the right to choose the amount of openness in the adoptive relationship, and she will select the family that is open to her request.  This has resulted in 67 percent of private adoptions having pre-adoption agreements of at least a semi-open adoption.  The 33% that don't have pre-adoption agreements are at the request of the birth mother.  Don't these mothers have a right to anonymity?  If you take that away, what will be the choice of these mothers?  We don't have to guess.  In states that took away the privacy rights of birth mothers, abortions rose."

Unfortunately, this opinion is rather widespread, even though the facts directly refute what this commenter is saying.  Rather than repeat all the statistics, as I and others in the adoption reform movement have done many times, I'll share the conclusions of several comprehensive studies and refer readers to the original source, when I can.

A 2010 study by the Evan B. Donaldson Institute concluded that there is "no discernible relationship between a state's policy on access to OBCs (original birth certificates) and its abortion rate."  The Institute paper noted that abortion rates in Kansas and Alaska, two states that never sealed birth certificates from adoptees, are lower than the national average.  The study likewise shows that those states that have reopened OBCs to adult adoptees have lower abortion rates post-access than pre-access.  When "open" states are compared to states that remain closed, abortion rates vary up and down, but there is no pattern and no statistically-significant trend.  The variations, the authors conclude, are most likely caused by social and cultural factors, as well as accessibility to abortion services.

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 2005 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 (Finer, Frohwith, Dauphinee, Singh and Moore, 2005).

The link between adoption and abortion is further explored in a 2010 article by Jessica Arons entitled "The Adoption Option: Adoption Won't Reduce Abortion but It Will Expand Women's Choices."  Published by the Center for American Progress, Arons' study notes that both adoption and abortion rates have fallen in recent years, even as births to unwed mothers have risen.  After analyzing the current data, Arons concludes: "Abortion has not caused the low rates of adoption in recent years; rather the low placement rates are a direct result of more single women choosing to parent on their own."

During the last legislative cycle, Larry Newman of the New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education (NJCARE) prepared a detailed analysis to refute New Jersey Right to Life's claim that adult adoptee access would lead women to choose the abortion option more often.  His study confirms the results of the Evan B. Donaldson Institute research.  Tennessee reinstated adult adoptee access in 1995, Delaware in 1999, and Oregon and Alabama in 2000.  None of these states has seen an increase in abortions post-access, and in fact, several have seen a significant decrease in abortion rates.

Newman also noted that in Oregon, more teenagers chose life over abortion in the years following the passage of OBC legislation than in the years preceding the bill's passage.  His conclusion overall is that adult adoptee access will neither reduce nor increase abortion rates: it will have no effect because similar bills have produced no statistically significant trends.

Unfortunately, we have found that all these statistics do little to assuage the fears of many, but not all, members of the pro-life community.  Catholic Child Welfare Supervisor James L. Gritter saw the light years ago.  In 1995, he wrote, "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."

The Rev. Thomas F. Brosman, an adoptee himself and a priest at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Bayside, NY, likewise speaks out for an adoptee's right to know his own truth and history.  Many opponents of adoption reform, he says, are driven by their ideology and  the understandable desire to settle for easy "either-or" answers in a complicated world.  Some pro-lifers do seem to see a complex issue this way:  in their minds, the solution to an unwanted pregnancy is either adoption or abortion.  Adoption is good; abortion is bad.  There is no need to investigate the subject any further to determine whether, in fact, adoption is always good, or whether, in fact, somebody's human rights are being violated.

Some pro-lifers fail to recognize that the child-to-be will in fact become a full-grown human being deserving of all the rights that other human beings enjoy.  She certainly does not deserve to be yoked to a lifetime restraining order preventing her from ever knowing the truth about her own personhood.  For example, as an adult adoptee and a former cancer patient, I was unable to participate in a medical protocol because I had no access to my original family history.  If that is not blatant discrimination, what in the world is?

As I try to explain to adoption reform opponents, I am a part of my original mother's private history, not a separate entity that exists outside of it.  Together, we co-own my birth information, and how we conduct our private business is up to us.  Some pro-lifers seem to jump to the conclusion that if the child knows the truth, everyone will know the truth, and the mother will be unfairly affected.  What do they think -- that I am going to run a newspaper ad or take out a billboard announcing to the world who my original parents are?

My private past is just that -- private, between my original mother and me.  No pro-life advocate, attorney or legislator has the right to interfere with that private relationship.  Like it or not, my original mother is part of me.  The truth is the truth, and genetic links cannot be severed and never addressed again, as if they had no importance.  Science tells us that genes do matter -- and no amount of rationalizing or wishful thinking can alter that basic fact.

Finer, L.B., Frohwith, L.H., Dauphinee, L.A., Singh, S. & Moore, A.M. (2005). Reasons U.S. women have abortions: Quantitative and qualitative perspectives. Perspectives on sexual and reproductive health, 37, 3, 110-118.

You may also like:

Adoptee Rights and a Woman's Reproductive Choices
An Elegant Catholic Voice for Adoptee Rights