The birth certificates of children who were given up for adoption have been locked up in metal filing cabinets in most states since the earlier part of this century — neither the adoptees, adopted parents nor birth parents have access to them. Within the past few years, however, seven states have passed legislation to open sealed birth certificates to all parties involved.
The most recent state to take up the issue is New Jersey, where a bill, which passed the legislature but was conditionally vetoed by Governor Chris Christie, would have given adoptees the right to their birth certificate and to contact their birth parents. Under the proposed law, a mother (and potentially the father) who gave a child up for adoption would fill out a preference form about whether she would like to be contacted directly, through an intermediary or not at all — and the child, with this information and his birth certificate, would decide whether or not he would contact his birth parents. However, there were some concerns that allowing a child to contact his birth parents, even when the parents did not want to be contacted, could have serious negative consequences.
So Christie vetoed the bill as written and offered a revision. In his revision, adoptees will not get automatic access to their birth certificates and birth parents' names. Christie’s version of the bill includes a confidential intermediary from an adoption agency that will search for the birth parents and ask them if they want to be contacted.
If they decline, the intermediary will collect a medical history form from the parents. If the intermediary does not find the parent after twelve months of “diligent” searching, the adoptee will be given his birth certificate. And, for future adoptions, mothers will be given a form to choose if they prefer complete sharing, sharing through an intermediary or only medical sharing.
Adoptees and adoptee advocates are upset about Christie’s conditional veto and argue that access to a birth certificate — and therefore the names of one’s birth mother and father — is a basic civil right. They say that until adoptees have the same access as non-adopted citizens, they, through no fault of their own, don’t have equal rights. On the side of these adoptees is a vocal group of women who gave children up for adoption before abortion was legal. They claim that they were never promised anonymity and that most birth mothers long to meet their children.
On the other side is the New Jersey State Bar Association and the ACLU of New Jersey, which believe protecting a birth mother’s anonymity is important and are grateful for the governor’s veto. They’ve expressed concern about adoptees searching for their birth parents blindly and have raised the question of what age an adoptee is ready for such information. Also vocal on the issue are the Catholic Conference and New Jersey Right to Life, which are grateful that Christie, who is Catholic himself, heard their concern about abortions increasing if birth mothers lose anonymity rights.
How old is old enough to find out who your birth parents are and possibly meet them? Should this be done through an intermediary or child-to-parent directly? Will abortions increase if mothers who give up their child for adoption are not allowed to remain anonymous? And will parents be more hesitant to adopt?
Adam Pertman, executive director, Adoption Institute, a national nonprofit organization devoted to improving adoption policy and practice; author of new book Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming our Families – and America
James Goodness, director of communications, Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey