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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Are Adult Adoptees Worthy of Respect?

Unfortunately, adult adoptees in the United States are still not respected as autonomous human beings capable of making intelligent and appropriate choices.  If they were, how can we possibly explain the fact that in most states, adopted adults are still denied access to their own original birth certificates?

Amanda Woolston over at Declassified Adoptee has written a perceptive post on this issue here.  As she explains, opponents to adoptee rights usually frame their argument around three themes: boundary issues, in which the assumption is that adult adoptees cannot manage boundaries or relationships without supervision; secrecy issues, in which the assumption is the original parents are cowering in shame and must therefore be protected; and social issues, in which the assumption is abortions will go up if adoptees are allowed access to their true birth records.

The data disproves all these assumptions, yet they remain prevalent.  To be clear, what adult adoptees are asking for legislatively is the opportunity to secure their true and original birth certificates.  When adoptions are finalized in the United States, the child's original birth certificate is sealed away, and an amended one, listing the adoptive parents as the mother and father, is issued.

This bizarre and outdated practice was initiated during the shame-based era around the mid-twentieth century, and it was never intended to protect the anonymity of original parents -- surrender documents reveal that the intent, rather, was to protect the adopted child from the "shame of illegitimacy," and the adoptive family from "unwarranted interference or intrusion."  The assumption at that time was that the original mother would forget the child and move on with her life, and that the child would forget that she ever had other parents.

Now, many years later, of course, we know better.  The data maintained by those states and countries that have restored adult adoptee access shows that the vast majority of original parents are not paralyzed by shame and are most often happy to hear from their surrendered offspring.  Meanwhile, scores of adoptees search for their original families every year in spite of the legal obstacles because they feel deeply that they are entitled as human beings to know their own personal history.  Whether the adopted adult elects to search or not, she should have the freedom to secure her own birth certificate, just like any other American citizen.  Denying her that right is so discriminatory that it amazes me that it continues to be an accepted practice.

What is the justification for denying the adult adoptee equal rights?  As Amanda points out, it is rooted in a negative view of the adoptee and often the original parents as well.  Some legislators infer that adoptees are "stalkers" who cannot be trusted to respond appropriately, should they use their true birth certificate to search, and should they encounter a negative response.  I  find this viewpoint particularly insulting, since my original mother was one of the few who was not open to a personal meeting.  We had a helpful phone conversation, and that was the end of our contact.  Neither of us was harmed, and we handled our private past -- which we co-own -- like the adults we both are.

Other legislators assume that original parents are so overwhelmed by shame that adult adoptees cannot possibly be allowed to know who they are.  First of all, this scenario ignores the fact that many adoptees find their original families every year -- an estimated 40 percent of them received some identifying information in their adoption decrees.  The idea of guaranteed anonymity for the birth family is truly a myth.

Secondly, this shame-based view treats neither the adult adoptee nor the original parent with any respect.  The assumption is that the adoptee is likely to tread into a place where she is not wanted, and that the original parent will not be able to handle the shock of hearing from her relinquished offspring.  Never mind the fact that legally, courts throughout the United States have always had the right to open adoptee birth records "for good cause." (at the adoptee's time and expense, of course)  Meanwhile, reunion stories in the media have become so commonplace that it boggles the mind to think that any original parent could ever be totally shocked to receive a call or letter.

The assumption that abortions will increase should the adult adoptee be granted access to her true birth record may be the most difficult assumption to refute, even though statistics show that there is no relation between abortion rates and adult adoptee access.  As Amanda points out in her post, adoptees are punished because we cannot figure out as a society how to address women's health issues.  The civil right of the adult adoptee to know her own personal history must take a back seat to the ongoing debates about abortion and women's reproductive choices.

As an adult adoptee, I personally resent being held hostage to this ongoing debate about women's health concerns.  My rights as a human being should not be compromised because of the social views of a minority of citizens.  Human rights are human rights.  Every human being has a right to her own identity and her own genetic make-up.  In what other area of life do we deny a population equal rights to support an ideological argument?

If adoptees and original parents were truly respected, they would be treated like the adults they are -- capable of managing their own personal affairs without agency or state interference.  The argument over adoptee rights, as Amanda points out, would then take on a totally different framework.

Instead of saying or thinking, "Adoptees are likely to have a dreadful effect on an original parent's life," we would say, "Adult adoptees should have the opportunity to have positive relationships with their original families."

Instead of saying, "We must maintain a system of secrecy and lies so that adoption remains a viable option," we would say, "Adult adoptees can often be an asset to their original families, and the truth may very well allow all parties a sense of closure."

Instead of saying, "A woman must be allowed to remain a lifetime secret to her own child," we would say, "This child and every child is worthy of respect and equal treatment under the law, so it is imperative that we address the unjust social policies now in place."

As an adult adoptee, I respect myself.   But unfortunately, my state's laws don't respect me.

 You might also like:

Adoptee Rights and a Woman's Reproductive Choices

Sealed Records Are Wrong. Period.

Why I Oppose Confidential Intermediaries

Pro-life Ideology and Adoptee Rights


  1. As an adult adoptee, I greatly appreciate your articles. I repost most of them on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I miss a few due to a busy family life. I'm active in NY state to get the sealed adoption birth record laws changed. Thanks again.

    Michael Schoer
    Brooklyn, Ny

    1. Hi Michael,
      I have read your comments on various adoption forums and appreciate all your efforts as well. Keep up the good fight!

  2. I appreciate your comments on adopted people's rights, and your willingness to do so publicly.

  3. Hi Joanne,
    I hope as more of us speak out publicly, more will join the growing movement for adoptee rights. It is such a difficult subject, but the solution, in my mind, is so clear. Alaska and Kansas never sealed birth certificates from the adult adoptee -- what a shame that all the other states did during the shame-based years. Oregon, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island have all passed clean bills allowing adult adoptees re-access to their own birth certificates. Four other states have passed bills with some provisions. I hope that soon we will reach a tipping point, and other states will follow suit. To tell a grown person that she has no right to her owns genetic roots is so wrong, and these outdated laws hurt so many more people than they presumably help.

  4. As an adoptee, I'm outraged at the wall the state of NY has put between me and my original birth certificate. Between me and my biological family.

    Fortunately, I was reunited with my biological family, but not soon enough to meet my mother, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage 20 years before I knew her name.

    It turns out that both of my mother's parents suffered the same catastrophic end, which means I might be next in line. However, I wouldn't have known about this family medical frailty had I remained cut from my biological roots.

    At the time I was adopted no one could have predicted the fate of my mother and her parents. Hence, finding one's family and learning about them over the years is valuable beyond measure.

    For me, after learning the medical facts -- and all the other family facts -- over 10 years ago, it was easy to make some life-style changes that should lessen the likelihood of being struck down the same way as my mother and grandparents.

    But if it hadn't been for my birth father finding me, I would never have found my biological family. The combination of the secrecy practices surrounding NY adoptions in 1951, the additional steps my birth mother took to cover her tracks and her sudden death at age 55 guaranteed I'd never have found her.

    Is it reasonable, is it humane to keep me -- any adoptee -- in the dark about a sword over one's head? No. It's cruel. It's wrong. Especially because my mother's second child, my half-sister, let me know my birth mother would have welcomed me if I'd found her.

    Eventually, my mother let the cat out of the bag. Her husband (not my birth father) and my half-sister learned I existed, and they wondered if I'd ever knock on the door. Sadly, when I did I was 20 years too late to meet my mother. Her husband was also dead, leaving my sister an orphan by age 30. She was thrilled to meet me, and for the last 10 years we've enjoyed an excellent relationship.

    But NY State would rather this didn't happen. NY State prefers to keep family members heartlessly separated for life. Actually, longer. There's probably a hope to run out the clock. Eventually everyone adopted in NY during the years of secrecy will die and the current law will fade into oblivion. And when that point is reached, the clamoring to undo the law will end.

    Chris Bischof
    Brooklyn, NY

    1. Chris,
      I share your frustration, and it was a cancer diagnosis that prompted me to initiate my search. The search is what turned me into an activist -- until that point, I truly did not realize that I had no rights. it is just intolerable that the current unjust law remains the law of the land in most states. We just have to keep speaking out; at some point, we will reach a tipping point, and the laws will change.

  5. Thank you, Attila. Please share widely. I am committed to raising awareness about this issue.

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  6. I couldn't have said it better. It is so frustrating to deal with legislators with archaic ideas about shame being the ruling factor in keeping records shut up and not give adoptees OF ANY AGE their true birth certificates. Please, everyone who reads this, if you live in a state where original birth records are still sealed, stand up, shout out, write letters, lobby for the self-evident right to own your true identity!

    1. yea all these people making my choices for me and denying me of everything has made me homeless which is mean and wrong to do that to me


    2. i cant have my birthcretficate i cant have birthparents i cant have a place to live i cant have housing icant have a phone or car i cant have friends all i am allowed to have is be adopted iots mean to do that to me people are mean to me and i want it to stop quit denying me of everything you mean abusive non adoptees

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  7. Your words speak right to my heart. As an adoptee myself, I too have faced these struggles. One's identity is nothing something to be debated - it's who we are.

    I cannot get enough of your writing, and it seems that we tend to share a lot of the same interests in working towards changing the face of adoption. I've shared this with my fans - more people need to see it!

    If you find yourself interested in reading the words of another grown adoptee, here is my blog:

    Thanks, great piece.

    1. Thanks so much, Elaine, for linking me to your writing. You are very articulate, and I'm going to get you onto my blog list today! I will look forward to reading your other posts and your book. My adoptive parents were loving people as well, but none of us had any education about the complexities of adoption; that's why I feel so compelled to speak out now. Too many still want to buy into the simplistic picture, when those of us who have lived adoption know better!

  8. Keep this going please, great job!


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