Plan to open birth certificates to adoptees is stalled

A lawsuit brought by four birth mothers who claim the law would violate promises of confidentiality prompts a judge to put the law on hold until legal challenges are resolved

Wednesday, December 2 1998

By Spencer Heinz of The Oregonian staff

An Oregon judge Tuesday blocked a voter-approved measure from becoming law that would have allowed adult adoptees to obtain copies of their long-secret birth certificates.

Oregon's adoption measure, which has drawn national attention, will not become law as planned Thursday and will remain on hold until legal challenges are resolved. That followed an agreement signed by lawyers for both sides and ordered Tuesday by Marion County Circuit Judge Albin W. Norblad in Salem.

The agreement was triggered by a lawsuit from four birth mothers who sued the state Tuesday under "Jane Doe" pseudonyms. They argued in part that they had been promised confidentiality when they relinquished their children to adoption years ago.

"Our argument is that Oregon law promised the privacy and confidentiality that was the basis of the adoptions, and because this law was retroactive, it wipes away those promises," said Franklin Hunsaker, a Portland lawyer who is also an adoptive parent. "And that's why we believe it's unconstitutional."

Lawyers for the state agreed to a temporary hold on the law until the issues could be resolved in court.

The law is expected to remain on hold for at least two to three months, they said.

"We have arranged this to allow all parties an adequate opportunity to fully present their views to the judge, who can then decide whether the measure is valid," said Katherine Georges, the assistant attorney general who will defend the state against the lawsuit.

Measure 58 would allow adoptees born in Oregon who are now 21 or older to obtain copies of their original birth certificates. In many cases, those certificates will contain the names of their birth mothers, information long kept confidential in Oregon and most other states.

In the first such adoption-rights vote in U.S. history, Oregon voters approved the measure by 57 percent to 43 percent in the Nov. 3 general election.

Measure 58 supporters said the suit was another traumatic turn of events, though a challenge had been expected.

"I'm really deeply saddened for the adoptees out there who have waited so long and have had to endure brick wall after brick wall after brick wall," said Helen Hill, the measure's chief petitioner. She intends to ask the court to become a party to the case on the side of the state.

"This," Hill added, "is another brick wall between them and a very simple civil right, which is the right of an adult to his or her own document of birth. Not a hard thing. The right of an adult to have the information that everyone else has."

Hunsaker, the lawyer representing the anonymous mothers suing the state, argued that the measure was out of line with federal and state constitutions.

Specifically, the lawsuit argues that the measure would violate privacy protections of birth mothers. Among other arguments, the suit contends that the measure deprives birth mothers of equal protection of the law in violation of the 14th Amendment and that the measure unlawfully reaches back in time and breaks a contract of confidentiality that they say was made to birth mothers.

"It gives adopted persons the absolute right to obtain confidential records identifying the birth parents who gave them up for adoption decades ago," Hunsaker said.

The four plaintiffs are birth mothers who relinquished their children for adoption in Oregon between 1961 and 1994.

The first Jane Doe said a religious adviser and a hospital physician assured her that her identity would remain confidential and her privacy would be protected from future contact with the child.

"Plaintiff Jane Doe 1 has not disclosed to her spouse or her other . . . biological children that she previously gave birth to a child and sur- rendered it for adoption," the lawsuit stated.

Kristen Grainger, executive assistant to Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers, said the state was prepared to defend Measure 58.

"We believe it's a viable law, and we will argue to the court that it is constitutional," she said.

Hill said supporters of the measure still plan to show up Thursday at vital records offices in Portland and other locations to ask for adoption records even though the law won't go into effect.

"This has now taken a turn from a celebration," said Hill, "to standing up for our rights."

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