Medford Mail Tribune Editorial

October 16, 1998

Measure 58

Divided over a private matter

Our editorial board split over the merits of Measure 58, the initiative that would require the state to issue a copy of the original Oregon birth certificate at the request of adult adoptees.

We take no stance, and instead recap our board's argument for and against.

Yes: It's a child's right

Measure 58 corrects a fundamental flaw in Oregon adoption law by ensuring that adoptees have access to the most fundamental personal document -- the birth certificate.

Opponents of this measure say it violates the privacy of birth parents, for whom the sudden appearance of a child given up long ago may cause pain and embarrassment.

That argument ignores the fundamental issue: The document is not the parents' birth certificate, it is the child's. And it is perhaps the most essential document an individual has, a document that speaks to the very essence of a person, to their very beginnings.

Who we are is defined partly by where we came from, by our ancestors and their history. We all have a fascination for those details and a longing to understand our roots.

But in Oregon, the government denies that right to adoptees. We have always held that the public has a primary right to public records. The individual should have a primary right to his or her records; they should not be kept hidden.

This is an issue of primary and secondary rights. Neither the government nor the parents have the primary interest in a birth certificate; theirs is secondary to the individual's right to this most basic of personal documents.

We understand this may be painful or embarrassing for the birth parent. But the parent made the mistake, a mistake whose consequences should not visited upon the child.

No: It's a break of faith

No one can change the past, no matter how much we wish it. But Measure 58 would reach back 40 years to try to rewrite history.

Birth certificates of adopted children have been sealed since 1957; in those days, society dictated that an unwanted pregnancy -- whatever the cause -- was a secret, a shame to be hidden and sealed away by law.

Those times are gone; open adoptions are the norm. But Oregon should not, decades later, undo the terms of the arrangement it imposed. Mothers didn't have a choice then; now Oregon contemplates taking their choice away again.

We all can share the anguish of an adopted child who longs to know more about her genetic background. Attitudes about pregnancy, adoptions and genetics have changed much in recent decades, for the better.

But it's wrong to arbitrarily apply today's wiser attitudes about adoptions to all cases of the past.

We could support changing the law from today forward. We could support expanding and improving the effectiveness of the state adoption registry, if it came before the Legislature.

That's where this balancing of rights of parent and child should take place. Such sensitive tasks are best handled in the fact-finding and give-and-take of the legislative hearing room, not the take-it-or-leave-it of the ballot box.

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