Willamette Week

Measure 58

Perceived Problem
The truth is out there--but not for everyone.

How It Would Work
For the past 40 years the state of Oregon has operated a system of secrets and lies. Under the terms of a 1957 law, when a child is adopted in Oregon, the state creates a new birth certificate, replacing the name of the birth parents and place of birth with the names of the adoptive parents and county in which the adoption took place. The state then seals the original birth certificate. Measure 58 would allow adoptees 21 years of age and over to get a copy of their original birth certificate upon request.

Ultimate Conclusion
No doubt many Oregonians were surprised to learn that adoptees can't get their original birth records. Today, most adoptions are open--that is, the identity of birth parents are eventually revealed to the adoptee. But for many years, a veil of secrecy shrouded the entire adoption process, a veil that this measure would rightfully lift.

The practice of closing birth records was implemented during a time when out-of-wedlock births--the reason why most children were put up for adoption--were considered shameful. The fundamental argument that critics make against this measure is that it breaks a promise made to the birth parents when the adoption first took place. The promise was that the parents would remain anonymous.

There are a number of flaws to this argument. For one thing, this promise to birth mothers was made without the consent of the adoptee--and the nature of the promise is not entirely clear. It's not even clear who was supposed to be protected: Strong evidence indicates birth records were sealed to protect children from the stigma of illegitimacy.

In addition, there are times when promises should be broken. Zoning laws once promised white homeowners that blacks and Jews would not be able to move into certain neighborhoods. Those restrictive covenants were broken to give all people the same opportunity. Measure 58 does the same.

Most studies show that the majority of birth mothers welcome contact with their offspring. In fact, the Boys and Girls Aid Society, which does not support Measure 58, reports that 83 percent of birth mothers agreed to having contact when found.

Critics of the measure say it isn't needed. The state has set up a mutual registry and search service, where it acts as an intermediary between birth mothers and adoptees who seek to find each other. That system, however, forces the state into the role of permanent nursemaid between adults--sometimes going so far as to require therapy. That's insulting. The registry is also expensive and ineffective. It doesn't help adoptees whose mothers have died, lost contact with the state or decided that they don't want to be contacted.

Ultimately, this measure forces us to weigh an adult adoptee's right to his true birth certificate against a birth mother's right to privacy. We come down squarely on the side of the adoptee.

No argument, in our mind, can reverse the strongly held feeling that an adult should have the right to his birth certificate. What that adult does with it is his business.

An underground system already provides adoptees with methods of finding their birth records, and we haven't heard of a single story of a "bad seed" showing up unannounced on his mother's doorstep in a fit of anger. Measure 58 does not force reunions, relationships or misery. If a birth parent is contacted, she has the option to say "no."

We strongly support this measure. It's not up to voters--or the state--to worry about what adoptees do with the information on their birth certificate. That may seem hard-hearted to birth mothers clinging to secrecy. But the current system is even more hard-hearted, and morally wrong, for others--adoptees and birth mothers, alike--who want the truth to come out.

Birth certificates do not belong to parents or the state. They belong to the people whose birth is recorded. It's time to stop the practice of secrets and lies--no matter how good the intention.

You Oughta Know
Only two states--Kansas and Alaska--allow adult adoptees to see their original birth certificates. Only one other state, Tennessee, has attempted to open birth records that had been closed. Internationally, records are open in New Zealand, Mexico, Argentina, Switzerland, Norway and Spain, among other countries. In England, previously closed records were opened in 1975. The Academy Award-nominated movie Secrets and Lies documents a modern-day reunion between a woman who gave her daughter up for adoption when the records were closed.

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Willamette Week | originally published October 14, 1998