Berry Price was adopted in 1944; 13 years later his birth certificate was sealed. Berry Price's birth certificate doesn't look that unusual. It has his name and the name of his parents. There's nothing on it indicating that it's been altered. But it has. That's because Price was adopted.
All children adopted in Oregon are issued a new birth certificate at the time of the adoption. The name given to them at birth is replaced with their adoptive name. The names of their birth parents are replaced with the names of their adopted parents. The address of their birth mother is replaced by the address where their adoptive mother lived at the time of their birth--even if the adoption occurs years after they were born.
The original certificate is not destroyed. Rather, it is sealed and stored at the state Department of Vital Records. Price, who has been searching for his birth parents for the past eight years, has asked to see his original birth certificate. Three different county courts
have denied his petitions. Now Price and other adoptees in Oregon have taken a different strategy. They're backing a proposed ballot measure, Initiative 46, which would allow all adults adopted in Oregon to have a copy of their original birth certificate. Without the information on the birth certificate, Price says, "There is a void in my life, and [someone else's right to privacy] should not be visited upon me."
The arguments for and against open adoption records elicit strong feelings about identity, family relations, privacy and government intrusion. One side says adoptees' right to know their biological roots have been trampled to uphold laws that birth mothers don't even want any more. The other says that even if only a few birth mothers want to protect their privacy, the laws must stand.
Currently only two states, Kansas and Alaska, allow adoptees complete access to their birth records. The open-records battle has been fought, mostly unsuccessfully, in several other states over th
e past two decades, but never before has it been put directly to voters in the form of an initiative.
The person responsible for bringing the debate to Oregon is Helen Siegel. The chief petitioner for Initiative 46, Siegel is a 44-year-old art teacher who lives in Manzanita. She was adopted at birth in Missouri and has successfully found her birth mother. And like many adoptees, she has turned the personal into the political by fighting for open records, most recently as a member of the radical adoption-reform group Bastard Nation.
Adoptees, Siegel says, are victims of discrimination. Because it targets a minority, she says, Oregon's 1957 statute that seals the birth certificates of adoptees violates the state's Bill of Rights, which guarantees equal protection to all residents.
Siegel says the law was created to reflect the social mores of a time gone by, when illegitimacy was shameful and the state began sealing records to make sure the stigma didn't taint adoptees in their new life. Birt
h mothers were told their identity would be forever secret, whether they desired it or not. Now, with the social stigma of adoption waning, Siegel says, it's time for the state to give up its secrets.
Unsealing original birth certificates serves several purposes, say backers of Initiative 46. For starters, even for those who aren't searching for birth parents, it provides an important historical record. For those who are searching, it provides an invaluable tool.
More tolerant attitudes about out-of-wedlock births have prompted increasing numbers of adopted adults to seek out their biological past. Internet communication has linked thousands of birth parents and adoptees. Search and reunion stories have become a daytime talk-show staple.
Sue Thoroughman, a caseworker at Heritage Adoption Services in Portland, says even the older birth mothers she's spoken with tell her they welcome contact from the children they relinquished 30 or 40 years ago. (A study from the Washington Adoptees' R
ights Movement shows 92 percent of birth mothers want to be contacted by their children.) "But there are those who definitely would not," Thoroughman cautions. "And those who feel that way feel very strongly about it."
Heather Kmetz of Catholic Charities, a Portland adoption agency, says adoption agencies would be likely to support the initiative if it affected only today's adoptions. But this proposed law is retroactive, meaning it would reveal the names of women who relinquished their children when the state law promised confidentiality. According to Kmetz, the women who came to her agency signed a contract guaranteeing their privacy. If the initiative becomes law, Kmetz predicts, agencies like hers will use their collective powers to fight it in court.
"Closing birth records is a valid and appropriate system for handling adoptions," says Portland lawyer Warren Deras, an adoptive father. "It is, in my view, a legitimate public policy to offer birth paren
ts confidentiality if they want it."
Siegel says the state and adoption agencies were wrong to make promises of confidentiality. "I don't believe anyone has the right to seal or open another person's private records," she says. "When talking about the rights to privacy of the birth mothers, the rights of the adoptees are overlooked."
Siegel says the laws treat adoptees as if they are forever the children who had no say in the agreements made at the time of their adoptions. "We are continually infantilized,"she says.
There are certainly women out there who never expected their children to learn their identity. But Siegel notes that there are likely other birth mothers in Oregon who relinquished their children before 1957 under the assumption that their children would be able to track them down when they became adults.