Adoption fight pits diverse groups

The battle about Oregon's adoption records law puts the spotlight on a feud between two national organizations

Sunday, December 6 1998

By Scott Learn and Spencer Heinz of The Oregonian staff

The court fight over Oregon's new adoption records law is on hold. But the legal battle has brought a bitter and often strange feud between two national adoption groups into the light.

On one side is "Bastard Nation," an Internet-based adoption-rights group that the other side derides as a smattering of 1960s-style radicals.

Its nemesis is the National Council for Adoption, a Washington, D.C., group representing adoption agencies that Nation leaders say is a Trojan horse for the Mormon Church.

Both groups have raised their profiles since voters last month passed Measure 58, which would allow people 21 and older who were born in Oregon to obtain a copy of their original birth certificates.

Bastard Nation demonstrated its grass-roots credentials Thursday, the day Oregon's law was to go into effect, summoning adoptees across the nation to request their birth records.

The National Council for Adoption helped find birth mothers who opposed the law and the lawyer who filed suit last week to block it.

On one level, the open-records debate is wrenching and deeply emotional for both sides. That was evident during the campaign.

On another level, it's politics.

"This is a public policy tussle," said William L. Pierce, president of the adoption council. "When you have a tussle, in many ways it's like a political campaign."

Pierce does not mince words when describing his foe.

"The name I find abominable," he said. "The agenda is exactly the same as the people who call themselves Queer Nation. If you report the story, you have to make their point for them: 'I'm going to use the most obnoxious term you can call me, and I'm going to rub your nose in it.' "

The group exists mostly in cyberspace, with a lively and occasionally ribald Web site and thousands of no-holds-barred e-mail postings to Internet chat rooms on adoption.

Pierce says he understands the group got started with a few people meeting in one of those chat groups.

"I think that's probably true," said Helen Hill, the chief petitioner for the adoption measure and the Internet group's Oregon representative.

Hill, who has never met Pierce, said a core group of adoptees got frustrated with the old guard in the adoption world a couple of years ago and decided they wanted unconditional access to adoption records. Immediately.

One of them, Hill said, was Marley Elizabeth Greiner, who casually signed an e-mail at one point as a member of what Greiner called the "Bastard Nation."

"Boom," Hill said. "A movement was born."

Hill said she saw the Web site as irreverent, bawdy, informative, angry and "funnier than heck." The first time she spotted it, she said, "It was like the bottle got uncorked."

"You have no idea how good it is for people to laugh about something for the first time in their lives after a lifetime of internalizing the issue and having it be shame-based," Hill said.

Credentials questioned

Pierce said he appreciates the group's passion but questions its credentials.

"They have people who can design beautiful, sophisticated Web sites that make you look like a real organization, even if you only have 200 people," he said.

Bastard Nation picked Oregon because it saw a place where it could win an election on the cheap, Pierce said.

Hill said she spent about $120,000 of her own money on the campaign. Pierce said his group contributed one worker.

Hill said the money came from the estate of her late adoptive father. Supporters in Oregon and elsewhere have reimbursed her about $50,000 so far.

"It's so funny that they're saying we spent more than them," Hill said. "It's like David shot Goliath with a very expensive slingshot."

The National Council for Adoption, a nonprofit group founded in 1980, has 100-plus-member adoption agencies, including about 50 Mormon social service offices.

Critics charge that it is a tool of the Mormon Church and the religious right.

Pierce disputes that, saying the 15-member board includes Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and a Jew.

Activities vary

The group's list of causes range from legal defense to a hot line connecting prospective families with adoptees. Its annual honorees have included former U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, and outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

"Good adoption policy and practice involves people from both sides of the spectrum," he said.

Most of the group's $1.2 million in revenues in fiscal year 1998 came from contributed services, fund-raisers and contributions, according to its latest audit. About $165,000 came from dues from member agencies, which include several Catholic groups and two-dozen independent organizations as well as social service offices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The council's only two members in Oregon are LDS service offices in Portland and Salem.

Dale Bills, a spokesman for the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, said the church is on record as supporting the council's positions, and its agencies' dues help support it financially. But the church plans no action in support of the lawsuit, he said.

"The church has been involved in adoption services for over 80 years, and as a church, we would oppose anything that would compromise the confidentiality of the adoption process," Bills said.

Involved in disputes

The council has tangled with adoptee groups in New Jersey and Pennsylvania of late. The last state to pass an open adoption records law was Tennessee. That law has been stalled by lawsuits since 1996.

The council filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the federal lawsuit in Tennessee joined by, among others, the Christian Coalition, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and several pro-life groups.

According to some open-records supporters, the religious opposition is based on an unfounded fear that access to the records will prompt more women to choose abortion over adoption.

Pierce said his group takes no position on abortion as an organization. He said he would have taken any group that wanted to sign on to the council's friend-of-the-court brief, "even Bastard Nation."

Franklin Hunsaker, the Oregon attorney and adoptive father who filed suit to stop the law on behalf of four birth mothers, said religion has nothing to do with the case.

He wants the state to keep promises of confidentiality made to birth mothers in years past.

Open-records supporters say they see no proof of promises made. And they say Pierce's group represents only a fraction of adoption agencies.

The Boys and Girls Aid Society of Oregon, the main opponent of the law during the campaign, is not joining the lawsuit and is not a member of Pierce's group.

Pierce admits the council's positions on open records and other issues drives away many adoption agencies that might otherwise become members. He doesn't expect the controversy to cool down any time soon.

"This is just the beginning of the spin war," he said. "There's a whole slew of people out there who have nothing better to do."

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