Suit, show of support loom on adoption rights

Opponents are expected to sue as early as Monday, and proponents plan to crowd records offices Thursday when the law is to take effect

Saturday, November 28 1998

By Spencer Heinz of The Oregonian staff

The decision of Oregon voters this month to lift a veil of secrecy by providing original birth certificates to adoptees turns out to be only the beginning.

Both sides are expected to fire salvos next week in what looms as a national battle pitting adoptees' right to know against their birth parents' right of privacy.

Opponents of Oregon's Measure 58 will seek to block the law by filing a lawsuit against the state as early as Monday, said Frank Hunsaker, an adoptive parent and Portland attorney.

"It will be filed on behalf of birth mothers in Oregon who believe that the law is an unconstitutional invasion of their rights to confidentiality and privacy," he said.

Opponents also argue that the law is unconstitutional because it is retroactive, betraying parents who expected confidentiality.

Whether or not the court approves a temporary restraining order, Measure 58's authors have called on adoptees and other supporters to show up Thursday at vital records offices in Portland and across the nation to ask for what they view as a civil right.

"It's a peaceful demonstration of solidarity, and the other states are doing it in support of us," said Delores Teller, a Beaverton birth parent and president of the Oregon Adoptive Rights Association and regional director for the American Adoption Congress in Washington, D.C.

Thursday is the day access to adoption records is set to become law. Oregon voters approved the measure by a 57 percent to 43 percent vote. Barring a court challenge, the law becomes effective 30 days after the vote.

The showdown is significant because Oregon's approval of Measure 58 marked the first time voters anywhere determined this type of adoption-rights measure. Both sides view it as a concept that could spread nationally if it gains a foothold.

Hunsaker said opponents will seek a temporary restraining order in Marion County Circuit Court in Salem to try to stop the law from taking effect.

Measure 58 would allow people 21 and older who were born in Oregon to obtain a copy of their original birth certificates. It would not authorize release of casework adoption files. It would be retroactive to cover all adult adoptees.

"It is our position that Measure 58 is a valid law, and we will defend it if a lawsuit is filed," said Katherine

Georges, an assistant attorney general with the Oregon Department of Justice who confirmed that her office had been notified.

Local and national supporters of the Oregon law have been preparing to fight any challenge in order to keep a clear path for adoptees to be able to get their birth certificates as voters mandated, said Thomas E. McDermott, a Portland attorney who is an adoptive parent. He said he expects to represent supporters at no charge.

"I may seek to intervene in that proceeding to represent the interests of those who support Measure 58," McDermott said. "We have contacts with a number of birth mothers who do say they want this information available to their birth children."

If a lawsuit is filed and a temporary restraining order is granted, that normally would put a 10-day brake on the law. A judge then would hear from both sides and decide whether to order an injunction to keep the records private.

Similar litigation, for example, has kept Oregon's assisted-suicide law on hold for nearly three years.

Central to the issue
The adoptee's birth certificate is at the center of the debate. The state issues every baby born in Oregon a certificate that lists the names of the parents. After adoption, the state issues an amended birth certificate and seals the original. Oregon is one of 48 states that follow this process. Alaska and Kansas are exceptions. A Tennesee adoption-rights law has been in litigation since 1996.

If Oregon's law becomes effective, applicants can request the certificate in person, by phone or by mail by identifying themselves as adoptees "seeking a pre-adoption birth record" and by enclosing a $15 nonrefundable search fee payable to the Oregon Health Division, according to a packet the division has prepared.

Among other things, the application should include the adoptee's full legal name after adoption, date and place of birth, the adoptive mother's full maiden name and the adoptive father's full name. The state's vital records office in Portland is in the State Office Building, Suite 205, 800 N.E. Oregon St.

Carol Sanders, certification manager with Oregon's Center for Health Statistics, said the staff has taken several hundred inquiries. She said her office also has received another dozen calls or letters from people who appeared to be fearful that birth certificates could be released.

"They're saying, 'This could ruin my life,' " Sanders said. "All we can say is if the law is changed, we have to follow it."

If the law goes into effect, applicants can expect a copy of their original birth certificate within two to three weeks, she said. The copy would contain a disclaimer saying it could not be used for identification purposes. That's to prevent a person from ending up with documentation for two identities.

Thursday's show of force
Whether Oregon's law is blocked or not, backers expect many adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents to show up Thursday at vital records offices in at least a half-dozen other states, including New York, Illinois and California.

"We're having a big national rush for our records," said Shea Grimm of Redmond, Wash. She and Helen Hill of Nehalem wrote Oregon's Measure 58 as part of an Internet-based group that fights for adoptee rights.

Opponents contend that allowing adult adoptees retroactive access to their birth certificates, without built-in privacy protections for birth parents, could spark traumatic searches for those parents.

Lauren Greenbaum, lead adoption counselor for the Boys and Girls Aid Society of Oregon, said her group won't be part of a lawsuit even though it opposed Measure 58. Instead, Greenbaum said, the Aid Society and other adoption agencies are fashioning proposed legislative changes designed to "protect the choice" of birth parents on a case-by-case basis. Such an amendment could give individual birth parents the choice of whether they wished to have their names released.

David J. Fidanque, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which opposed Measure 58 for not accommodating the privacy interests of some birth parents, said the Legislature might be the best forum to balance the rights of adoptees and their birth parents.

Both supporters and opponents have national connections as the process unfolds.

Supporters of Measure 58 include Frederick F. Greenman, a New York attorney who will help advise McDermott. Greenman is an adviser in another adoption-rights law case now in a Tennessee state court.

The opposition includes William Pierce, president of the National Council for Adoption in Washington, D.C., which has helped fight aspects of the adoption-rights law in Tennessee. Pierce said the impetus came from some Oregon birth mothers calling his office to say they needed help to stop release of their names through the new law.

"Our expectation is we'll fight this to the highest court in the land," Pierce said. He added, "If we we stop it in Oregon, then the other states will say, 'Obviously there is no point,' and who knows, we may get lucky."

Spencer Heinz writes for The Oregonian's Family and Education Team. He can be reached by phone at 1-503-221-8072, by mail at 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, Ore. 97201 or by e-mail at
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