This summer, NJ Governor Chris Christie has been visiting coastal towns as part of his "Endless Summer of Tax Relief: A Conversation at the Jersey Shore" tour. Ah, if only I could convince the governor that signing an adoptee rights bill would lower tax rates in New Jersey -- then maybe he would be willing to talk with me! Gov. Christie appeared in Brant Beach on Long Beach Island in July, and I briefly thought about attending his event since I was vacationing just a few miles away, but then I remembered how other members of the adoption reform movement have been treated during his public meetings.
When NJCARE member Zara Phillips last winter said she didn't understand why an adoptee rights bill couldn't work in New Jersey, when adult adoptees in England have had access to their original birth certificates since 1975, the governor replied, "Oh, I see you're from England -- you don't understand how things are done here in New Jersey."
The way things are done here in New Jersey, apparently, is that a bill that has been thoroughly debated and approved by a democratic vote in both the Senate and Assembly is completely rewritten by special interest groups behind closed doors and then reintroduced as a "conditional veto" by the governor.
That scenario, in fact, is exactly what happened with the adoptee rights bill approved by the Senate 27-10, and by the Assembly 44-26 during the last legislative cycle. I can't tell you how much it irritates me that Gov. Christie has claimed in public forums that "some adoptees won't compromise," when it was he who renounced a compromise access bill that had been approved by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, many of whom had listened to hundreds of hours of testimony.
The term "conditional veto" in this case is grossly misleading, since what Gov. Christie really did was replace a simple civil rights bill with a completely new version prepared with major input from opponents to adoptee rights, a version to which the Legislature and the public never even had the opportunity to respond. So was Gov. Christie's action a fair or even democratic response? Hardly. It was an autocratic decision drafted to appease the concerns of the NJ Catholic Conference of Bishops, The NJ Bar Association, NJ--ACLU, and NJ Right to Life.
One wonders when we look at Gov. Christie's objections to the original bill whether he even understood its intent -- to allow adopted adults access to their own legal documents of birth at the age of 18. The bill was not about reunions -- it was about treating adopted adults just like we treat every other American citizen.
Currently in New Jersey and most other states, adult adoptees are denied the same rights as other citizens to secure their own legal documents of birth. Instead, adoptees are issued amended birth certificates when they are adopted as children, and their true document of birth is "sealed" by the state. To remedy that inequity, Gov. Christie proposed that we create and maintain a state-run system of confidential intermediaries to act as a buffer between adult adoptees and their original parents -- thus perpetuating a system in which adoptees are viewed as forever children singled out for special and separate treatment.
Gov. Christie said that the bill passed by the Legislature, which allowed adult adoptees to apply for and secure their original birth certificates just like anyone else, could have had "a potential chilling effect on adoptions" -- here he uses the telling and misguided language of institutional opponents to adoptee rights.
In another revealing comment, he said, "Yet I also strongly empathize with the adopted child, and adopted parents who may long to know the identity of the birth parents."
Why is the adoptee referred to as a child here, when the Legislature had approved a bill addressing only the rights of the full-grown adopted adult? And why, once again, was it assumed that the bill was all about reunions, when it was really about the right of adults to secure their own legal documents?
In conditionally vetoing the bill last year, Gov. Christie perpetuated all kinds of myths and stereotypes about adoption. Despite his statement that an adoptee rights bill would have a "chilling effect" on adoption, adoption rates are not lower in states with access legislation, nor are abortion rates higher.
Gov. Christie and other opponents to adoptee rights bills maintain that the original mother's right to privacy is paramount, and that this right trumps the right of the adopted adult to know his or her own true identity. Even if adoptee rights bills were about reunions, such a position makes no logical sense. The data shows that 95 percent of original parents are open to contact, and in states like Oregon, which passed access legislation in 2000, fewer than one percent of original mothers have filed "no contact" preferences. Higher courts in Oregon and Tennessee have also weighed in on this issue, ruling that there is no constitutional right to privacy for original parents that would be violated by releasing the birth certificates of adult adoptees.
I keep sending these facts and others to Gov. Christie's office, in the hope that someone, someday, will pay attention. To date, I haven't received any replies or invitations for constructive dialogue. And were I to speak out at one of Gov. Christie's public forums, I might ask, "Why, Governor, if you believe in less bureaucracy, would you suggest that we create an unwieldy and expensive state-run entity to control contact between adoptees who are adults and original parents who are adults, when simple, inexpensive civil rights bills have worked so well in other states?"
I suppose the governor would respond that I simply don't understand how New Jersey government works. But sadly, after working for a fair adoptee rights bill for over ten years, I do. The facts, which can easily be secured from the websites of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, the American Adoption Congress, and NJCARE, show that granting adult adoptees the right to secure their own legal documents of birth is the fair and ethical thing to do. We are still waiting for those facts to outweigh the fears and myths promulgated by the opposition, and for simple justice to become more important than the games that some politicians play.
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