January 28, 2015
To Whom It May Concern:
I’ve been told since I was a little girl that I have my father’s nose. And my grandmother’s laugh. And now that they are both gone, I cherish that knowledge. It is part of my basic human identity. I think of all the ways we honor our genetic history and the connectedness it brings us. Ancestry.com, after all, is a multi-million dollar business. We maintain national archives devoted to genealogical research. Even the language we use to describe people…chip off the old block, spitting image, “like father, like son.” Most of us take this knowledge, this connection, for granted. I certainly did until I met my husband.
After we had been dating for a while, we had that “what are you” conversation. This was an easy question for me, and I answered, “I’m mostly Irish, and a little English and French. What are you?” There was a long silence before he answered me. “I don’t know.” Can you imagine not knowing your own ethnicity? Imagine having never met a single person that looks like you, who shares your nose, or your laugh. Never having seen the face of the woman whose womb you grew in. Imagine having no medical history – no family history at all. Now imagine that you have been told that you have no right to know what every other American citizen knows – your own identity. There are five million adult adoptees in the United States today, whose access to their own identity is legally blocked by outdated legislation that was enacted in the 1940s and 1950s to protect illegitimate babies from the shame and stigma of being born to unwed mothers.
Personally, I did not understand the full impact of being adopted prior to marrying my husband. The first time he had a serious health issue, I went with him to the doctors. It didn’t take very long to fill out the family medical history, as all he could do was write “unknown” on line after line of questions. Since he had no family medical history, he was forced to undergo several invasive and potentially unnecessary tests. Two of those tests required him to undergo general anesthesia which carries some serious risks, including death.
Many people assume, as I once did, that adoption records have always been closed. Until World War II, most children who were relinquished for adoption had married parents who either had died or simply could not provide for them. While courts shielded adoption records from prying eyes, there were open to the adoptee and the biological family. Access to original birth certificates with identifying information was the norm.
It was only post-WWII, during a time known as the Baby Scoop Era, that most adoptions involved an unwed mother and an illegitimate child. During this time, infant adoption began to be promoted as the solution for infertile couples to have the family that they dreamed of. Private adoption agencies sprang up and grew into the four billion dollar a year industry that exists today. There was immense stigma placed upon unwed mothers, and many mothers were pressured to sign over parental rights just hours after giving birth, often while still drugged. Adoptive families began demanding complete anonymity in adoptions. States passed laws that issued each adopted child a new, falsified birth certificate that stated that the child had been born to the adoptive parents. Courts began permanently sealing the child’s original birth certificate from all parties involved. Social workers and therapists counseled families to hide the adoption from everyone – including the child.
What about those birthmothers? Many worry that birthmothers have a right to anonymity. That releasing the identity of adopted people will harm women who just wanted to move on with their lives and may not have told anyone about the birth of a child. But we must remember that there is a difference between privacy and anonymity. Birth parents should have the same rights to privacy as all other family members. No one owes their child a relationship, but at the same time – every person has a fundamental human right to know who they are.
In fact, all the controversy over birthmother’s rights to secrecy may well be for nothing. According to the 1989 Maine Task Force on Adoption in states where access was legislated, 95% of birthparents who were contacted wanted reunion. When records were unsealed in the state of Oregon, only one out of every 400 birthparents requested no contact. Other studies have shown similar results.
And what about those extreme examples, such as cases of rape? A New Zealand study found that adult adoptees can better cope with even these kinds of traumatic revelations than having no information at all. Most adoptees know that in exploring the unknowns of their origins, anything is possible. They are well aware that there must have been difficulties surrounding their birth or they would not have been placed for adoption. Most have considered or suspect already that this is a possibility. When this information remains secret, it actually serves to increases the shame for birthmothers and adoptees. The reality, once it is out in the open, is less than the pain of the secret.(http://www.americanadoptioncongress.org/reform_myths.php)
In closing, I would like to tell you that I am now an adoptive parent myself. There are few things that hurt more than watching your beloved child struggle with issues of identity, lack of health information, and a sense that they don’t exist in the way that other people do. My son is seven years old, and he has never seen himself reflected in the face of another. He does not know his genetic heritage, nor does he have even a photo of his mother and father. Yes, they are still his mother and father every bit as much as I am. Providing him with his own name, his own heritage and the circumstances of his own history will take nothing away from my relationship with him. Much like divorced parents, adoptive and biological parents have always shared adopted children whether we want to admit it or not. I will always be the parent who raised my son. His other parents will always be his roots, his history and hopefully a part of his future. They are forever a reflection of my son, ones that he deserves to know. Withholding this information only serves to strain the relationships within adoptive families – for we are seen as the barrier between our children and information that is rightfully theirs. Adoptees are the only class of citizen in our country who are denied the right to their own identity. Identity, which holds the key to ethnicity, ancestry, and medical information, is a fundamental human right. (UNHCR) Please join us in supporting legislation that will restore that right to all adult adoptees. Thank you.
Adoptive parent and wife of an adult adoptee