Adoptees' rights put to a vote

October 23, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- The way Helen Hill sees it, her life as an adoptee has been part of a vast social experiment: "What happens if we seal away the true facts of people's birth?" What happens if adoptees don't know their biological parents?

For most of U.S. history, adoption was informal and fairly open. But at some point before the 43-year-old Oregonian was born, states began shutting down the records and keeping the birth certificates secret.

This "experiment" was begun with good intentions. In an atmosphere of shame and secrecy -- the Scarlet Letter era of unwed births -- this was seen as a way to protect the birth mother, the child and even the adopting parents from the prying eyes of outsiders.

It was never meant to "protect" these people from each other. But that is of course what happened. The door between the adoptive family and the birth family was locked tight.

Now we've passed through 20-odd years of increasing openness. We have more open adoptions, open parent-child searches, open attitudes. Many of the adult children of secrecy like Ms. Hill, who found her birth mother two years ago, are convinced that the experiment failed them.

So with varying degrees of success, adoptees have set up registries, created Internet sites and pressed their case in the courts and the legislatures. Yet all but two states -- Kansas and Alaska -- deny adoptees access to their original birth certificates.

Now, largely because of Ms. Hill's persistence, the state of Oregon is putting this question to the people. Voters are being asked to decide on Nov. 3 if an adult adoptee should have the same access as any other citizen to his or her birth certificate. With very little national fanfare, Measure 58 is poised to cross the final threshold of openness.

Those who support this ballot initiative see it as a matter of civil rights. In Ms. Hill's words, it's "the basic human right to know where the hell we came from."

Those who oppose it, however, see it as the violation of another right: the right to privacy. Warren Deras, spokesman for a group of adoption professionals, worries about "the 60- to 70-year-old women who are terrified that the secret has come back to bite them, the secret they've kept from their husband and children." He believes there should be mutual consent before disclosure.

But even if you avoid the legal "rights" argument, there still exists conflicting views of fairness. Is it fair for the state to keep this knowledge from one group of citizens?

So we have arrived at one of those decisive moments in a gradual and uneven social change. One view of fairness must inevitably trump another.

For my own part, I am not convinced that the old "promise" of anonymity was freely made or truly wanted by birth mothers. What, after all, were their options? And however a woman feels at birth, does she still feel the same way 21 years later?

Nor am I convinced that opening the records would make pregnant women of today less likely to put their children up for adoption -- the other primary concern. There's no evidence of that in open-record states. In England, where they opened records in 1975, there's been no increase in abortion or decrease in adoption.

But the bugaboo of the argument is that somehow or other adopted children will begin "showing up on the doorstep" of their blindsided birth parents. The "doorstep" issue, which is heard everywhere, is particularly galling to Helen Hill. Not only because it implies that adoptees are borderline stalkers, but because it suggests that birth mothers have erased their entire memory of the unblessed event.

Maybe fathers can be surprised, but mothers? "We were on their doorstep before," Ms. Hill says pointedly. The idea that mothers put it all behind them is another relic of this social experiment. We know better today.

I don't brush off secrecy concerns lightly. While not every birth certificate will begin a search, not every search ends in joyful reunion.

But as a society we are headed toward a consensus that, on the whole, "it's better to know." In such an atmosphere it no longer seems right for the state to be the keeper of the keys to anyone's identity. Oregon is the place to begin closing down this social experiment.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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