October 7, 1998

Respect adoption privacy: Measure 58 breaks promise of confidentiality

A Register-Guard Editorial

Anyone born in Oregon can readily obtain a copy of his or her birth certificate. Anyone, that is, except people who were adopted. Their original birth certificates are sealed, and available instead are revised birth certificates listing the names of the adoptive parents. Measure 58 on the Nov. 3 ballot would change that by allowing adults who were adopted as children to obtain copies of their original birth certificates. Sympathy for adoptees seeking information about their past will tempt many voters to support Measure 58. They should resist the temptation.

Adoptees' original birth certificates were sealed by law in 1957. The Legislature's intent was to protect the identity of birth parents, usually mothers. At that time, unwed motherhood - the circumstance that most commonly leads women to put their babies up for adoption - was cloaked in shame. Women who bore "illegitimate" children often sought to keep their pregnancies secret and demanded that adoption agencies respect their need for confidentiality.

Attitudes have changed, and though some stigma clings to unwed motherhood, many adoptions today are "open" to various degrees, with the birth mother maintaining some form of contact with an adopted child. And many parents who gave up children for adoption decades ago are happy to establish contact today; stories of joyful reunions with birth parents and siblings are standard fare in newspapers and on television.

Yet the fact remains that from 1957 until today many women sought and received a promise of confidentiality in adoption proceedings. Measure 58 would break that promise.

Measure 58 lacks an essential provision for mutual consent. It speaks only to the desire of many adult adoptees to learn about their birth families. It fails to acknowledge that some birth families may not wish to reopen a closed chapter of their lives. In some cases, the birth mother may not have told her family that she once put a child up for adoption. In other cases, a woman who conceived a child after being raped may have an emotional need to avoid reminders of her trauma. In still other cases, children are put up for adoption because their birth parents are abusive or neglectful. Each adoption is unique, and in some situations Measure 58 would give birth parents reason to dread a knock on the door.

Oregon's adoption laws and practices do not leave adoptees completely in the dark. Adoption agencies encourage open adoptions and advise against keeping adoption a secret from adopted children. Sealed birth certificates can be opened by a court order. By law, adoptees and adoptive parents are entitled to medical information provided by birth parents.

Most important, there are procedures by which adopted children and their adoptive families can establish contact with birth families. Adoption agencies are required by law to establish voluntary adoption registries through which such contact can be made. The usual method is for an adopted child to contact a birth parent through an intermediary. The trained go-between ensures that both parties wish to make contact, counsels both parties to prepare them for a meeting, and then puts them in touch. The voluntary registries may prove cumbersome in some cases, but they ensure that reunions occur only with mutual consent.

Many people who were adopted as children find, as they grow older, that they thirst for knowledge of their birth families. They want to learn more about their ethnic background, their siblings or other relatives, and the biological wellsprings of their identity. This desire deserves respect. State laws and adoption agency policies should make it as easy as possible for adopted people to find answers to their questions. The Legislature might even consider a prospective version of Measure 58 - a law stating that the original birth certificates of people adopted from this day forward will be made available when adoptees reach the age of majority.

But privacy and promises of confidentiality must also be respected. With its retroactive grant of access to original birth certificates, Measure 58 would pry open doors that some people were assured would always remain shut. Oregon voters should not presume to intrude in this area. They should reject Measure 58.

Copyright © 1998 The Register-Guard