March 22, 1998

Rights clash in adoption disclosure debate

Adoptees push for access to birth records, but opponents voice privacy concerns

By Maya Blackmun of The Oregonian staff

Mary Inselman, 76, found out just five years ago that she was adopted.

But the Cottage Grove great-grandmother hasn't found out much more.

"There's no one I can talk to about my adoption," she said. "They're all gone. And I still can't get my birth certificate."

Oregon law bars adoptees from getting their original birth certificates. But a group of adult adoptees and their supporters hope to change that. They started an effort Saturday to get an initiative on the Nov. 3 ballot that would allow adoptees to get their original certificates once they turn 21.

The group needs about 73,000 valid signatures by July to make the ballot. They say they have about 20,000 so far.

For decades, groups have tried to persuade the Oregon Legislature to change the law but have failed. So after the latest effort during the 1997 session, Helen Hill, an adult adoptee and the measure's chief petitioner, decided to try to bring the case directly to the state's voters.

For the initiative's supporters, it's a matter of a fundamental right to basic information. Beyond that, some want the information so they can reunite with birth relatives or learn their birth family's medical history.

For the initiative's opponents, it's a matter of keeping promises and not disrupting lives dependent on keeping secrets.

Many say the issue may become moot in the future as open adoptions - with varying degrees of disclosure between birth and adoptive families - continue to gain popularity. But for people who were adopted or who placed children for adoption during the closed-file era, the issues are difficult and complex.

Under a 1957 Oregon law, new birth certificates are drawn up once a child is adopted. Information about the adoptive parents - including names and addresses - is listed in the place of the birth parents. The original birth certificate is kept by Oregon's Vital Records Unit but is disclosed only under court order.

If the law changes, Oregon would join a small group of states that allow access to original birth certificates. Right now, only Alaska and Kansas do. Ohio and Tennessee release the certificates for adoptees born in certain years. And Tennessee's Legislature recently approved a law similar to the Oregon proposal, but it is under appeal. Other states allow information to be disclosed in times of medical need.

For years, Inselman underwent tests for diabetes because her adoptive mother had severe diabetes. That information went on the health records of her children and her children's children. Although the proposed law wouldn't change the past, Inselman hopes to get her original birth certificate so she can find out more about her medical history and share it with her descendants.

Hill, who goes by the name given her while her birth mother was in a maternity home, was born 42 years ago in Missouri, so any changes in Oregon's law would not affect her. She was able to find her birth family through an Internet search but says she was lucky.

She says it's clear Oregon's law must be changed regardless of birth mothers' expectations of anonymity.

"If it's wrong, it's wrong," she said. "It needs to go."

Hill said she is irked by the argument that the records should remain closed because adoptees may confront their birth parents and cause problems.

"The state shouldn't be treating adult adoptees as suspect criminals," Hill said.

Heather Kmetz, public relations manager for Catholic Charities, which has had an adoption and crisis pregnancy program since the 1960s, said she considers the matter complex. But her agency opposes the initiative for a simple reason.

She said the initiative would affect all adoptions dating to a time when birth mothers placed their children for adoption with a presumption their identities would be kept confidential.

Kmetz said her agency might consider supporting a bill requiring all future adoptions to include open records.

"If it is required to be open, a mother needs to know that at the time of placement," she said, "not 20-some years afterward."

Catherine Dexter, an attorney who arranges adoptions, said there are other ways to locate birth parents besides original birth certificates - including the state's voluntary registry, where both adoptees and birth parents sign up if they are willing to be contacted, and public and private search services.

The initiative's proponents argue that many birth parents don't know about the registry, and the search service can be incomplete. Dexter counters the answer should be to better publicize and improve the registries and search services.

"I don't think we have an absolute right to information about our ancestors. I think they have an equal right to privacy," Dexter said. "That's why no one's rights can be guaranteed 100 percent, because they overlap."

Jim Wheeler, director of Columbia Counseling, a West Linn-based adoption agency, said having a third party act as an intermediary is preferable. With someone acting as a go-between, he said, birth relatives have time to consider reunions and prepare their families without undue pressure.

John Chally, an adoption attorney in Portland, said he's talked to birth mothers horrified at the thought they might have to face their child decades later to say their lives must remain separate.

He's also had clients sit across from him in tears about their need to know their origins and inability to get the information they seek.

"You see both sides so clearly, and the conflict is so fundamental, it's really hard to resolve," he said.

If he had to vote tomorrow, Chally said he has no idea what he would do.

"I can't imagine not being ambivalent," he said, "if you've truly listened to both sides."

Maya Blackmun, of The Oregonian's Family & Education team, writes about divorce, child care, workplace and family-related laws and policies. She can be reached by phone at 294-4065 or by fax at 294-4039. Send e-mail to or postal mail to 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, Ore. 97201.

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