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Oregon voters could open door to adoptees' past

By Adam Pertman, Globe Staff, 10/02/98

SALEM, Ore. - Mary Inselman found out five years ago that she was adopted. Ever since, she has been trying to get her birth certificate, so she can learn her biological parents' names and seek out any blood relatives she might have.

Both a state agency and a judge have repeatedly turned down her requests, however, because Oregon - like almost every state - bars adoptees from obtaining these documents. The stated reason is that birth parents were promised anonymity, and that they should be spared an uncomfortable encounter they may want no part of: having the children they relinquished show up at the door.

Inselman finds that logic irrelevant. She is 77 years old.

''There's probably nobody else even living in my family,'' she said last week. ''It just seems so stupid that this is happening.''

Which is why Inselman, a soft-spoken woman who shies away from political activity, vocally supports a revolutionary initiative on Oregon's ballot next month. It would give all adult adoptees unrestricted access to their birth certificates, a right no state has granted in at least a quarter-century; and it would do so only if voters approve in a referendum, marking the first time in US history that any question regarding adoption has been put to a public vote.

''It's not penetrating people's consciousness because neither side has a significant amount of money, and because the Bill and Monica show and the Sosa-McGwire show [have been] dominating the media,'' said Warren Deras, a lawyer who works with a statewide coalition of adoption professionals who are opposing the unprecedented open-records initiative. ''But people should pay attention, because it's a very important issue ... with some very important implications in Oregon and for the whole country.''

That it surely is, at least for the tens of millions of Americans whose families include adoptees, adoptive parents, or biological parents of children given up for adoption. The ''search'' - shorthand for adoptees' efforts to find biological parents (and sometimes of parents seeking them) - is perhaps the most difficult and emotionally charged subject that the adopted and their families face, subtly or directly, or try to avoid.

The consensus among adoption professionals, and the trend in the past decade or so, has been in favor of increased openness. As a result, a growing majority of children adopted today are or will be provided with wide access to records and other information about their backgrounds, usually from their own adoptive parents. Moreover, as adoption has emerged from the shadows of shame and secrecy in American life, the number of birth mothers requesting anonymity has been rapidly shrinking.

Some states have tried to catch up to these recent realities, partly by creating little-publicized registries in which birth parents and adoptees can formally declare their desire to meet and provide details of how they can be contacted. A handful of states, including Oregon, have developed systems that let adoptees ask intermediaries to conduct a search and arrange a reunion with birth parents, if they are amenable.

Alaska and Kansas have always kept their birth certificates open to adoptees. But adoption-reform advocates, agencies, and adoptee organizations have not succeeded in changing the laws anywhere else - not even when release would be subject to severe restrictions to protect birth parents' privacy.

A novel approach

So the sponsors of Oregon's initiative decided to circumvent the traditional route, through the state Legislature and the courts, and are taking their case directly to the people. If they succeed, they plan to expand their referendum strategy to other states.

''This is a matter of grave concern to us on the national level,'' said Bill Pierce, president of the National Council for Adoption in Washington, a conservative organization that has led many successful fights against measures designed to make adoption more open. ''We've beaten them in the courts, we've beaten them in the legislatures ... but we've never had experience with an initiative before, and we would have to fight it in every state. In some ways, this battle is a dress rehearsal.''

Helen Hill, an elementary school art teacher and adoptee who is leading the charge here, seemed thrilled at the possibility that the ballot measure in Oregon could have such dramatic consequences. She appeared equally pleased at the use of a strategy that puts the decision about birth certificates into the hands of a new group of decision-makers.

''It automatically changes the dynamic and, I think, puts the odds on our side for the first time,'' said Hill, who is the Oregon director of Bastard Nation, the largest and most vocal adoptee activist organization in the country. Noting that adoptees are the only Americans not allowed to view their birth certificates, she added that ''voters will see that this is a clear, simple civil rights issue... that no group should be denied a basic right granted to all other citizens.''

Lauren Greenbaum, an adoption specialist with the 113-year-old Boys and Girls Society of Oregon, believes that Hill's argument is so straight-forward and appealing that it will prevail in November. ''I think they'll win,'' she replied flatly when asked about the referendum's chances.

But she also said that Hill's approach is misleading, because the proponents' objective is not simply to give adoptees access to their birth certificates, but to facilitate the pursuit of biological parents. ''It's all about `search,''' Greenbaum said.

She said that the biological parents' rights therefore need to be addressed as well, but she worries they won't be, what with the difficulty in getting the electorate to focus on the complexities or subtleties of the issue.

Although they have principled concerns about the ballot measure, Greenbaum and other initiative detractors aren't expecting much harm to result if it is approved. Indeed, most experts agree that the vast majority of birth mothers - and fathers in the minority of cases when they've been involved in the process - either are accepting or glad to be found, regardless of what they felt when they relinquished their children.

Looking at motives

Both sides also agreed that the biggest source of fear about ''search'' is unfounded: that adoptees are moved to seek out their biological parents because they are unhappy with their adoptive parents. ''The research clearly shows that search doesn't indicate dissatisfaction; people simply have a desire to know where they come from,'' said Peter Gibbs, a longtime adoption specialist and director of the Center for Adoption Research and Policy at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester.

At least as significant, the adoption professionals who oppose Oregon's initiative said they would support a statutory change to open birth certificates to all new adoptees once they reach the age of 21. That provision would protect birth parents who were assured of anonymity in the past. Opponents of the current initiative also want to allow for a ''contact veto,'' by which birth parents or adoptees could sign a register declaring that they don't want to hear from their biological relatives.

''It's not that Bastard Nation or other people in support of this don't have good arguments, because they do, but we have to balance the rights of the birth mothers, too,'' said Greenbaum.

Most mainstream adoption-reform groups, as well as specialists in the field, are watching this battle without participating in it. Some share the concern about birth parents' privacy; others worry that if the initiative comes to be viewed as a national testing ground, and fails, the consequences could be significant.

Ballot-box repercussions

''With all the information on the Internet, and given the open way adoptions are done today, issues of access to information about adoptees' biological parents are becoming moot,'' said Joan Hollinger, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley Law School and one of the nation's foremost experts on adoption practices. ''What I'm concerned about is that this initiative's loss could send a message that people don't want openness, don't want open records... so the down side could be substantial.''

Madelyn Freundlich, who heads a research organization in New York called the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, echoed that concern. ''Pierce and people like him will say they were right all along and will point to a defeat as vindication when other states try to change their laws,'' she said.

All of which could set the stage for a compromise in 2000 if the measure does lose, one that would push the birth-certificate issue ahead with limitations designed to satisfy both sides in the current controversy.

Hill, however, isn't ready to talk compromise yet. She insists this is an all-or-nothing fight for adoptees. She sees a parallel in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, when activists rejected half-measures because they wanted full equality. Hill said she understood some birth parents might not want to be sought out and found, but argued that all those involved are adults who can express their sentiments to each other without any intermediaries.

''You can't make one group's rights supersede those of another,'' said Hill. ''And you can't talk about compromise and civil rights in the same sentence and be honest at all.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 10/02/98.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.