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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What drives the myth of confidentiality in adoption?

In early October, I wrote a blog post detailing how NJ Governor Chris Christie managed to thwart an adoptee rights bill that had been approved by both the State Assembly and the Senate.  In response, a commenter who calls herself MamaGina wrote the following:

woman gives birth
adoption is chosen
pain ensues
the deal is made
privacy promised
records are sealed
life goes on
years roll by
baby becomes adult
enter adoption reform
privacy be damned
do I have this right?

The viewpoint expressed here is one we hear often among adoptee rights opponents.  What amazes me is that MamaGina apparently chose to overlook and/or dismiss some of the most pertinent facts shared within the post.  For example, I shared the Oregon statistics,  which show that fewer than a quarter of one percent of birth mothers have filed "no contact" preferences since an adoptee rights bill enabling adopted adults to secure their own original birth certificates was enacted in 2000.  Would this statistic not indicate that the vast majority of original parents do not live in mortal fear that their offspring might someday find them?

And even more astounding is that the NJ legislation that Gov. Christie opposed provided a one-year window during which those few birth mothers who may not wish to be found could remove their names from the birth document.  This compromise was one that many in the adoption reform movement were unable to support, and I can't blame them.  Legal decisions have determined that no birth parent has ever had a legal right to anonymity from her own child, and I believe that every adopted person has a right to know his or her own birth information with no exceptions.  The fact that opponents to adoptee rights would oppose a bill with such a concession shows me that they are not reasonable people; they are "true believers" who are unable to accept any fact that contradicts their predetermined world view.

Most readers here know that adult adoptee access is not a new and untested concept.  England opened its birth records to adult adoptees in 1975!  The states of Alaska and Kansas never sealed adoptees' birth records.  Alabama reinstated access in 2000, having only sealed records from adoptees in 1991.  New Hampshire's access law took effect in 2005, Maine's in 2009, and Rhode Island's just this year.  Data collected from all these states is reinforcing the findings from Oregon:  most original parents do not desire anonymity, athough they understandably may wish for privacy.  There is a distinct difference between the two concepts.

The myth of birth parent anonymity is just that, a myth.  It is estimated that up to 40 percent of adoption decrees contain some information about the original family.  For example, both my and my brother's adoption papers contain our original birth names.  As those who are familiar with adoption history know, records were sealed to protect the adoptive family from "unwarranted intrusion" and the adopted child from the "shame of illegitimacy."  They were never sealed for the protection of the birth parents.  Similarly, many credible research studies show that adoptee rights bills do not increase abortion rates, nor do they decrease adoption rates.  Yet the opposition continues to insist or imply that they do.  It is this willful ignorance of the facts that is so infuriating.

Here is my reply to MamaGina's comment:


Your viewpoint is based on false assumptions. The first false assumption is that privacy was promised. Several legal decisions have determined that birth parents were never promised privacy -- records were sealed in the mid-twentieth century to protect the interest of adoptive parents. If you're interested in the history of sealed records, I suggest you read the work of law professor Elizabeth Samuels. The second false assumption is that birth parents want anonymity from their own offspring. The data from states that have allowed adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates clearly shows that a tiny minority of birth parents say that they wish to have no contact with their surrendered children, now adults. In Oregon, where adult adoptees have had access to their original birth certificates since 2000, fewer than 1 percent of birth mothers have said they prefer to have no contact, and over 10,000 adoptees have received their birth records. Many, many birth mothers have come forward to say they were never promised anonymity -- rather, it was forced upon them. When birth mothers prefer to have no contact, they can simply say no, just like any other adult. My birth mother, for example, preferred to have no continuing contact, and of course I have honored her request. We did have a letter and phone exchange, however, that provided a great deal of closure for both of us. I think you are confusing privacy and anonymity. Obviously, I have a vested interest in knowing something about my birth parents, because they are part of me. My birth mother and I share a private past, and that past is nobody's business except for our own. Many myths about adoption have been propagated by agencies and attorneys who in their own financial self-interest work primarily to assuage the fears of adoptive parents. They are unfortunately less interested in the welfare of the relinquished child or, for that matter, the welfare of the surrendering parents.

Another adoptee, Renee, gives us this perspective:

"When I found my mother (a very positive, happy reunion), I asked her why she had never looked for me. She answered that the agency had made her promise she wouldn't, and she'd always felt that she had to keep her word. I answered, "Well, it's a good thing I never promised jack-sh*t to anyone, isn't it?!?"

No one's ever been able to produce a document showing any relinquishing mother was promised privacy. Ever. Not one. Because they weren't. It may have been implied to some, but it was never promised, certainly not in any binding way.

Records were sealed to assuage adopter insecurity and for no other reason."

And finally, I'll share this response from Gaye Tannenbaum:

"Based on several DOZEN women I know (including my mother), it actually goes more like this:

woman gives birth
has few options
is told adoption is better for baby
pain ensues - goodbyes are said
is warned not to search
your child is dead to you
she belongs to someone else now
baby is given a new identity
records are sealed
life goes on but memories linger
years roll by
baby becomes adult
I must be patient
will she search for me?
despite people telling her it's wrong to search for me?
despite few clues and doors slammed in her face?
found - reunited - happy tears flow
does the government have the right to keep us apart?
do you have the right to keep us apart?"

Original parents commented too.  Priscilla Sharp asserts that original parents have "the same rights accorded to every other citizen of the United States; that is, to hang up the phone, shut the door, write back and say, 'Please leave me alone.'"  What they do not have, she says, since they have imprinted the child with their own genetic material, "is the right to perpetual anonymity."

A human being has the right to his or her own basic identity.  That fact should not be controversial.  In the realm of adoption, as in all other areas of life, it is time for the government to back off and allow adults to navigate their private business on their own.

For more information, please see:

The Strange History of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Records


  1. Another excellent post! You wrote:"The fact that opponents to adoptee rights would oppose a bill with such a concession shows me that they are not reasonable people; they are "true believers" who are unable to accept any fact that contradicts their predetermined world view."

    This is what some of us have been saying for a while, that no concession to those like Christie who oppose adoptee rights will ever be enough, so we might as well go in with a clean bill and keep coming back until it passes. I well understand the desperation of so many years of trying to get a bill through in NJ that led to the compromises, but the sad thing is in the end the compromises did not matter and did not get the bill passed, but vetoed and gutted. Yes, the true believers will not be swayed by facts, because their own agenda won't let facts in of they contradict their prejudices. I think the best thing we NJ activists can do is to work to defeat Christie in the next Governor's race, and hope his opponent is a more reasonable person.

  2. This was very helpful to me, the difference between anonymity and privacy: "most original parents do not desire anonymity, athough they understandably may wish for privacy. There is a distinct difference between the two concepts."

    Very thought-provoking, as usual.

  3. Susan - my unsealed court documents list my mothers name and residence and mom and dad signed that document stating they had read and understood the contents. My family who all knew about me had discussed my showing up one day...

    Regardless of all the data provided - some only choose to selectively hear the message.

    What they fail to understand is that whatever "I" (adoption agency) as a business promise "you" as a consumer (adopting parent) or "you" as a supplier (mother giving baby) - unless that promise is backed up by law - the promise is not protected by law.

    Around the time of my adoption in my state the adopting family could request to view the files at any time, and then once viewed - they would be again sealed from the public scrutiny.

    The public scrutiny was one of the primary drivers - so Joe Smith who was curious about the Brown family could not go to the court house to see the adoption paperwork.

  4. Every single solitary person has the absolute right to know who his or her biological parents and antecedents are. There is no such thing as a right to anonymity from one's own child. No matter how the child came into being whether through an affair that the parent(s) doesn't want anyone to know about, rape, whatever the circumstances, natural parents do not have the right to deny this information to their own offspring. No human being should have to live his or her life without this most vital aspect of human existence. The only exception would be in those cases where it is not possible to know who the father as in a stranger rape.

  5. Unbelievable that Christie opposed that!


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