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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Why does America lag behind on adoptee rights?

"The closed records adoption system was a violation of the human right to know oneself. ... To have birth rights stripped away is utterly immoral and wrong."

Can you imagine a US government entity making such a pronouncement anytime soon?  Unfortunately, that scenario is improbable, given that the vast majority of states in America still prohibit adult adoptees from accessing their own legal documents of birth.  Yet this conclusion from a comprehensive study just completed by the Australian Institute of Family Studies gives me hope.  Progress in America is agonizingly slow, but I'm confident that injustices in the adoption system will one day be recognized here as well.

I have no doubt that if a scientific survey of adult adoptees were to be conducted in the US, the results would be similar to those compiled by the Australian study.  The research there included the input of 823 adopted individuals, and you can read the report for yourself here.  Recurring often throughout the paper are issues relating to identity and belonging, whether the adoptive home was loving and secure or not.  The consensus across the board seemed to be "that everyone has the right to know who they are and where they come from."

According to the study, almost nine out of every ten adoptees surveyed said they had tried to uncover information about their original families, although some kept their searches secret for fear of hurting the feelings of their adoptive parents.  I was struck, as I read through the adoptee comments, how closely their thoughts mirror those of adoptees who are currently active in the adoption reform movement, or who recently commented on the New York Times Motherlode article entitled "Adoption, Destiny and Magical Thinking."

"Access to my information is my right, not my privilege," says one Australian adoptee, objecting to the fees she must pay to try and secure information about her own history.

"Why should I have to pay for something that's my right to know?" says another.

"That I had to pay for my own information disgusts me," another comments.

In reacting to the contact vetoes that original mothers had been permitted to place, blocking the release of information, one adoptee asks, "What makes her better than me, in terms of being able to know who I am?"  Another adoptee frustrated with the veto system adds, "We have moved forward as a society enough that we should allow adults to deal with adult situations."

According to the Australian study, respondents believed strongly that they had the right to know their own genetic identities, "not just for themselves, but also for their children and grandchildren."  The fees they were required to pay to government agencies to access information about themselves angered many, as did the veto system active in some districts.

One interesting finding of the research project was that "adopted individuals appear to have been the 'gatekeepers' of other people's needs/expectations in the adoption circle."  In other words, many adoptees feel as if they must protect the feelings of their adoptive parents, who sometimes feel threatened by the existence of the natural family.  They also feel as if they need to be extra sensitive to the feelings of the natural family.  What then, are they to do with their own needs and feelings?

As one adoptee astutely observes, "The loudest voices and agenda setting come from relinquishing and adoptive parents."  The report acknowledges that most adoptees feel as if their experiences and feelings count for little, especially in the matter of adoption policy.

One adoptee laments the fact that many of the same mistakes in adoption and now reproductive technology are still being made, because people are not paying attention to the adult adoptee perspective.

"I think the underlying root of the problem is the baby-supply industry.  The same issues are coming up with donor conception, surrogacy, 'selling' children on the internet, especially in America.  I'll never know who my father is and I'm seeing people put in similar situations where they will never know who their father is.  They're told, but you've been given life, you're better off because we want you.  It's about the needs of the parents, not the child."

In conducting studies like this one, in which the adult adoptee perspective is sought and valued, the Australian government is making a concerted effort to come to terms with adoption abuses of the past and to improve the practice of adoption for the future.  In America, an overwhelming majority of those who actually live adoption -- adoptees, original and adoptive parents -- believe that adult adoptees should have access to their own original birth certificates.  But powerful ideological and special interest lobbies that profit from the practice of adoption continue to drown out their voices, in spite of all the compelling evidence that sealed records do not support the best interest of the child.

But times are changing and more and more people are speaking out.  Adoptees are objecting to being left out of policy discussions, and they are objecting to a media portrayal that too often glamorizes adoption without addressing the ethical challenges that need to be confronted.  I hope to live to see the day when one of our government bodies proclaims that "the closed adoption system is a violation of the human right to know oneself."  It has already happened in Australia.  How long will it take America, the long-admired Land of the Free, to catch up?

You might also like:

Ethics of Adoption and Reproductive Technology

An Adoptee's Perspective on Love and Why Truth Matters


  1. Our family never considered the issues surrounding "infant-stranger-adoption," until in 2000, our 65 year old cousin (he waited for both adoptee parents to die), wanted to find his original family. What we learned as a family was overwhelming. His Mom was a 4th grade teacher, his grandmother was a first grade teacher, and his grandfather was a small town mayor with a masters degee in Enginering. The father of the child was killed on the front lines of WWII. The child barely graduated from high school. But his half-brothers both earned PhD's. This family was completely capable, actually better equipt, to raise our adopted cousin. We learned how between 1940-74, the adoption industry used unethical strategies to obtain free products from family's in crisis. Adoption is really just a business of selling baby's. Today women have a more frightening issue to deal with, if that is possible. The focus by some politicians is to eliminate birth control or health care insurance programs to low-income and middle class women. And if those politicians are voted into office, the Adoption agency's would again attempt to get a free product, unethical as this is. Politicians are discussing ways to eliminate womens health care, social programs and access to birth control. Women need to vote with a clear understanding as to what politicians support social programs for family's in crisis; it is important to the mental health of our communities to keep family's together. Consider checking NARAL and Planned Parenthood for supportive politicians to vote for.

  2. As a birth Mother,it was never my choice to have a closed adoption for my daughter. I was never given a choice. It cost me great pain and heartbreak before I finally found her as an adult Mother of 2. I`m convinced that we are still estranged because I wass NOT offered the chance to be an on-going part of her life. I was not given the right to expalin my decision to her or to her family during her formative years. And her adoptive family and I were both lied to from day one,before the adoption ever happened. The system needs to be restructured from the ground up. Adoption is NOT a dirty little secret. It is a very loving,very unselfish choice.

    1. Agreed, Peeggy. The system should be guided by research and by the experiences of those who have lived within it, not by free market forces. We have so much compelling research to show that secrecy does not serve the best interest of the child, and in my view, it is unethical to deny full-grown adults access to their original birth certificates. Allowing adults that access should be a no-brainer, yet it feels as if we are fighting World War III in every state because the ideological (misguided Right to Life groups) and industry lobbies are so strong.

  3. " It has already happened in Australia. How long will it take America, the long-admired Land of the Free, to catch up?"

    I think it will take a very long time and it may not happen in the lifetime of us BSE adoptees. American and Australian cultures are so very different.

    @Anon 10:58am,
    I agree with your analysis.

  4. Thank you for this report. I too hope that within my lifetime I might 'know who I am". My daughter is 100% behind this. She's very intrigued to know the relatives who are out there that we've yet to find. My adoptive parents were always very supportive, they understood my need to know. May our gov't one day do the same.

  5. As someone who has been involved in the fight for adoptee right to their original birth certificates since 1975--nearly four decades--I no longer believe I will live long enough to see my life's work come to fruition. But adoptions can be open, if the mother insists, and that is some reward.

    I found my daughter; and a quarter of a century later, buried her. And the legislators still do not see the rightness of our cause.

    Do not give up the fight for right must and will succeed.

    1. Hi Lorraine,
      I don't know whether I will live long enough either, as I am 62, and you know our history in the New Jersey legislative arena! But the culture is changing, albeit too slowly, thanks to your work and the work of others with the same passion. I am encouraged by the energy and activism of some of the younger folks coming up in the adoption reform movement. But I agree with you -- more people must speak out, and hopefully they will as time goes on.

  6. Many adoptees are not waiting for the laws to change. We are finding ways to get around the secrecy and reunite with birth families. I did that with a lot of help from DNA testing and now there are DNA success stories happening weekly.

    You can read my story in my new book, Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA. It's available on

    Also check out the Yahoo Group known as AdoptionDNA, where a lot of DNA-savvy search angels are helping adoptees daily.

    Richard Hill

  7. Thanks are the poster child for such successes. And thank you for sharing your story in your book with all of us. It's a must read for anyone considering doing DNA testing to help in their search.

    At AdoptionDNA the success stories seem to be coming in almost daily. I personally know of three just this week. The methodology used is a combination of DNA testing and good old fashioned sleuthing and is making a difference in birth family discoveries. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time but in the end it is well worth it...and probably much faster than we'll ever see our original birth certificates, especially in New York.

    Karin Corbeil

  8. I have read that many US states closed birth records during WWII when men went off to war and wives got pregnant anyway. Things were different in Europe since husbands were not gone so long at a time.

    I have also read that the Mormon Church strongly opposes open records due to their believe that God intended the child for it's adopted family and all ties to the birth family should be cut. Since it is a US based church it has had more influence here than in other countries.

  9. I was involved with the legislative committee attempting to open records in CT many years ago. Those of us on the committee found it interesting that, when it came time to testify in Hartford as to the desirability of opening the records, it was birthmothers, adoptive parents and social workers who showed up in greater numbers than adoptees. I found that fascinating and horrifying that we were working to benefit their knowledge and we couldn't get them to come tell the legislators that they wanted information.

    I think that's changed now -- or at least I hope it has.

  10. Karen,
    I have been involved in the New Jersey push to give adult adoptees access to their OBCs, and adoptees make up the majority of the legislative committee. We would like to get more people involved, but I think when many adoptees find their original families without their OBCs, they understandably move on with their lives. It's not that pleasant trying to talk some sense into legislators, NJ Right to Life, the NJ Bar Association. and Gov. Chris Christie! Also, some adoptees prefer to go about their business quietly, for fear of hurting the feelings of their adoptive families. I found my birth mother without an OBC -- my adoptive parents always had my original birth name. I'm involved because sealed records are so offensive and unfair to the adoptee, and I think they contribute to corruption and diminish the entire institution of adoption.

  11. Great article! And so true and insightful. One by one, states are changing, and adult adoptees fortunate enough to be born in the more progressive states are finally being allowed to have a copy of their original birth certificates (OBC). The states of Maine, Illinois, and most recently in July 20102, the little (but in my opinion mighty!) state of Rhode Island, were the latest states to enact a Adoptee Rights Bill, and now give adult adoptees access to a copy of their OBC.

    I live in MA and have lived in MA for 40 years, and I could have my OBC if I had been born in MA, but unfortunately I was born in NY State. I was born in 1956 in Binghamton, NY. Why NY State is so backwards when it comes to enacting the Bill of Adoptee Rights is beyond me. Last year they passed a same sex marriage law in the name of equal rights, but apparently do not apply the same principles to adult adopted citizens, so they continue to totally ignore the thousands of adult adoptees who continue to be subjected to unequal treatment. Eight states in the USA get it, the rest continue to support inequality, and ignore our civil rights. Many countries in Europe get it, and Australia.....and it distresses me greatly how my own country treats me, and others like me, as second class citizens, unable to know the most basic piece of information, where I/we came from.

    I have also turned to DNA for answers, and I have already learned new and exciting things about my ethnic ancestry. I have hundreds of predicted 4th and 5th cousin matches, and a few predicted 3rd cousins, and their surnames give me more clues regarding my genealogical roots and ethnic mixture. I am confident that science will help me continue to learn even more about "me".

  12. My baby brother is about to be adopted without my fathers consent, and there is nothing my family can do about it, they move to terminate, and they will.


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