Birth of a Notion
Think the '98 ballot lacks emotional issues? Try telling that to adoptees across the nation, who view Oregon as the next battleground for their civil rights.



No opposition PAC to Measure 58 has yet been formed.




Opponents to open records often say abortions will increase if birth mothers know their names will be revealed when their children reach adulthood. Such a correlation has never been proven, however.




Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life, says that the pro-life group is staying neutral on Measure 58 because it will have no impact on the state abortion rate.




Thomas Kelly Crumlish, a Pennsylvania antiques dealer, has never been to Oregon, but these days he considers it the most important state in the union.

Crumlish is a 40-year-old adoptee. At an adoption support group last month in Philadelphia he heard about Measure 58, the Oregon initiative that would allow people adopted in Oregon to get copies of their original birth certificate when they turn 21.

Crumlish wasn't adopted in Oregon, but he immediately sent a $25 check to the pro-58 campaign anyway, joining hundreds of other out-of-state adoptees and birth parents.

Helen Hill, chief petitioner of the measure, says that over the past few weeks she has received about 25 checks a day, taking in nearly $13,000, mostly in amounts less than $50. It's an indication that the battle for adoptee rights has come of age, she says.

"It's exploding," she says. "I'm basically watching this thing as it pyramids across the country."

Hasso Hering, editor of the Albany Democrat-Herald, learned of the measure's national significance last month, after publishing an editorial supporting the measure. Since then his paper has been the target of a national e-mail writing campaign, the likes of which he's never seen. After the editorial, he ran a reader's letter in opposition to the measure and was bombarded with counter-arguments from around the country. A month later, he still receives two to three letters a day.

"It's more important to a lot of people than I would have thought ordinarily," he says.

The response to Measure 58 has surprised many political observers, who just a month ago were saying that, unlike in the previous years, there were no emotional social issues on this year's Oregon ballot to capture national attention.

What they've learned is that Measure 58's appeal is not limited to desperate adoptees who see it as the last chance to search for their birth parents.

Comlish, for example, completed a search for his birth mother last year and met her in her home in Ireland. He was willing to send a check almost 3,000 miles to Oregon because he sees the state as a battleground for a larger fight against discrimination. "The state has decided it's legitimate to deny one group of citizens the information, whereas any other citizen can get it."

At issue is an adoptee's original birth certificate. Every baby born in Oregon is issued a certificate with the name of his or her parents--even a baby who has been pegged for adoption. Once an adoption takes place, however, a second birth certificate is created that lists the new parents. The first one is sealed away, and the adoptee cannot see it without a court order. The same basic procedure is followed in 48 other states.

To Measure 58 supporters, the practice violates state and federal prohibitions against laws that apply only to certain groups of people.

"It's just plain discrimination and being treated differently under the law," says Mary Foess, an adoptee from Vassar, Mich. The 52- year-old elementary school teacher does not need her birth certificate to search for her biological parents; she met her birth mother 15 years ago. Nonetheless, she sent a small check to Oregon. It was her way to support what she sees as a civil-rights battle. "The handicapped people got equal treatment," she says. "The blacks did." Now, she says, it's time for adoptees.

The charge for adoptee civil rights has been led by Bastard Nation. The national group has leaders in major cities who are promoting Measure 58 to adoptee organizations around the country. It's also spread the word across the Internet, posting fund-raising solicitations to dozens of adoption mailing lists and Web sites. Small fund-raisers--from barbeques in New Jersey to garage sales in California--are being held, with all money earmarked for Oregon.

It was a ready-made audience. With the advent of the Net, adoptees can communicate as they never have before and are quickly becoming politicized. "It's the first time that adoptees have been in the driver's seat," Hill says. "We're running the show."


originally published August 26, 1998