Why Are American Adopted Adults Denied the Right To Know Who They Are?

There is simply no good reason. As an adoptive parent of two sons born in the United States and twin daughters born in Ethiopia, I believe that adopted people have the basic human and civil right to know their original family, to know their original names, to know their medical history, and to choose whether they want to pursue a reunion, once they have this information.

Still, today, in 2017, no other group except American adult adoptees is denied the right to their original birth certificates, to know who their biological parents are, who their biological grandparents are, who their biological siblings are, what their ethnicity is, and what their genetic history is.

It astounds me how many non-adopted adults and how many adoptive parents are willing to continue to deny adopted persons access to information about who they are.

How about if we listen to adult adoptees, as well as the many organizations which represent them, as the best advocates for the right to their own birth certificates?

Right now, in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo is being urged by 45+ national and international adoptee organizations, as well as hundreds of individuals, to veto a bill that is costly (Adoptee Rights Laws estimates a cost of $6 million),  convoluted, and thoughtfully opposed by organizations such as the New York-based Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI). Read the article “Give adopted people unencumbered access to their origins” by DAI chief executive, and adopted person, April DInwoodie. Read the list of adoptee organization and individuals who oppose the bill and urge Gov. Cuomo to veto it here. Information from New York Adoptee Equality is available here.

New York, and many other states, can enact far better, less costly legislation that is fair and transparent.

One commonly touted reason for opposing access to original birth certificates is that birth parents were promised confidentiality about the adoption. However, if they were promised this by a lawyer or doctor or adoption agency worker, it was an unenforceable assurance. There has never been any law that guarantees that birth parents would never be contacted by their children. It simply does not exist. In fact, adoption records were largely public until about 60 years ago. Records were sealed largely because of the stigma of illegitimacy then, but not to prevent people from contacting each other. Records have been unsealed in many states since, and judges can unseal records in emergencies. We have moved in the adoption community away from shame, secrecy, and lies, toward transparency, openness, and fairness. The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s report An Examination of the History and Impact Of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates provides detailed information.

Another common rationale is that allowing access to adopted persons will increase the number of abortions. There is little evidence for this claim. Further, abortion is an alternative to pregnancy, not to adoption. Adoption is an alternative to parenting. “The abortion rates in both Alaska and Kansas, states which grant adult adoptees unconditional access to their original birth certificates, were lower than the national average as a whole – 14.6 and 18.9 abortions, respectively for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44, compared to the national rate of 22.9 (Source: Alan Guttmacher Institute http://www.agi-usa.org/pubs/journals/3026398.html). More information on this is available here and here.

A few U.S. states currently allow full access, though many states require adopted adults–not children anymore–to undergo mandatory counseling, to work with state-employed intermediaries, and to pay high fees. These requirements essentially infantilize adopted persons, treating them as children, buying into the narrative that adoptees should simply not be curious about who they are. Understanding who we are is a basic human pursuit and instinct.

I would be remiss if I did not note that DNA testing has affected search and reunion in adoption on a local, national, and global scale. Mothers are locating the children they placed for adoption; siblings and cousins are finding each other. Facebook groups provide astonishing amounts of support and guidance for adoptees to locate their birth family members. Among the many resources are DNA Detectives, DNA Adoption Community, and the Global Adoption Genealogy Project. Amazon Prime has sales on DNA kits today. All that said, adult adoptees should still have the legal right in the U.S. to access their own records, just as every non-adopted person does.

Adoptees raised in loving homes by loving adoptive parents have the right and perhaps the need to know as much as adoptees who had miserable adoptive families. The issue of gratitude is a volatile one in the adoption community, but being happy or grateful that one was adopted does not seem to me to be a reason not to want (or deserve) to know one’s original family.

Foster children who are adopted have their personal histories, their medical histories, and their names. Many international adoptees have their original birth certificates.

But American adults adopted as babies are denied the basic human and civil right to know who they are, a right which should be held higher than an ostensible promise of privacy. Only nine states in the U.S. currently allow total access to original birth certificates. Other countries around the globe allow far better access for adopted persons to their records. American adult adoptees should be allowed to know who they are.


1 thought on “Why Are American Adopted Adults Denied the Right To Know Who They Are?

  1. This was well written. This opinion is put forth infrequently by people who adopt. Like you, I am not adopted, but the issue is important as an issue of equal protection under the law for all citizens. I reunite families for free and many of them include sons and daughters who were adopted out and those families were subjected to reduced rights associated with adoption law.

    Unfortunately access to information about their identities is not equal to never having their identities altered to begin with. This barbaric practice of issuing amended birth certificates with their parent’s names replaced with the names of the people who adopted them and their name replaced by a name chosen by the people who adopted them – this practice should not happen at all! If we stopped allowing states to issue ammended birth certificates on people who already exist, there would be no fight for access to their true identities or to the identities of their parents. Why are we allowing people to alter the identity of those they adopt to begin with? The birth certificate identifies the person and they should have access to it and use it as an identifying document the same as every other citizen does. If they need to prove they are adopted or if people need to prove they adopted the person named on a birth certificate they can show their adoption order with the birth certificate to obtain a passport, enroll them in school or consent to medical care for them. The birth certificate proves who they and their parents are and the adoption decree proves that they were adopted and proves who adopted them. There is no need for a third document that makes it appear that they are the child of the people who adopted them, it’s false, misleading and is worthless as a vital medical record of human health and reproduction of the people who adopted named as parents and is worthless as a vital medical record of the health of the person named on it who is not their offspring and whose health at the time of birth had nothing to do with them or their caregiving efforts.

    So if you are for giving adopted people access to their real birth certificates then are you against the practice of issuing them fake certificates to begin with? Would you as someone who adopted request that the state remove your name from their birth certificate and reinstate the origiinal with their real name and parents names allowing them a certified original they can use for identification purposes, since reinstating the original would not undo your adoption or even their legal name change since that is part of the adoption order and adoption paperwork? The adopted person can show their original certificate for identification and show the legal name change paperwork with it as people do when they are married since birth certificates are not altered to show a married name or other name change.

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