The Past, Unsealed
In June, New Hampshire became the fifth state to open birth certificates to adoptees. Five years ago, Oregon led the charge. This is the story of that groundbreaking challenge, and how it’s changing our children’s future.by Linda Baker
One of seven children, adoptee Theresa O’Doherty wasn’t searching for additional family members. But the 38-year-old mother of two did want to learn more about her medical history. So in 1998, the year a landmark open-records law—Ballot Measure 58—passed in Oregon, O’Doherty became one of the first 1,000 people to apply to the state’s Office of Vital Records for her birth certificate. A year-and-a-half later, O’Doherty tracked down her birthmother, Lynn Marino. Among other things, O’Doherty learned that she had a genetic tendency toward blood clotting, a discovery that led her to stop taking one of her prescribed medications.
Marino, who had become pregnant as a teen, was ecstatic at the opportunity to meet her birthdaughter. “I had always hoped and prayed for it to happen,” says Marino, “but I didn’t feel it was my place to go searching.” Today, Marino and O’Doherty see each other at least once a month, often in the company of O’Doherty’s parents, and the families have vacationed together. “We just clicked,” says Marino. “It’s been an incredible experience.”
In most states, adopted children can view only a partial or edited version of their adoption records, which often omits information such as original birth name, birthparents’ names, and place of birth. Measure 58 marked the first time in the United States that a citizen’s initiative to ensure the right of adopted adults to their records was placed on a statewide ballot. It was also the first time a sealed-records law had been repealed. (Previously, only Kansas and Alaska had recognized the rights of adoptees to their birth certificate, but adoption records in these states had never been sealed.)
“Measure 58 is part of a larger trend toward openness in adoption,” says E. Wayne Carp, Ph.D., a history professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and author of a new book, Adoption Politics: Bastard Nation and Ballot Initiative 58. “It was a milestone in that history.”
Five years later, hundreds of Oregon adoptees have reunited with their birthparents. The new law grants adoptees, age 21 and older, access to their original birth certificate. It also provides for a form that birthparents can sign to indicate whether they wish to be contacted. As of April 2004, the Oregon Department of Vital Records had issued 7,791 birth certificates.
The Oregon law has had a small ripple effect on the rest of the nation. Three states—Delaware, Tennessee, and Alabama—enacted similar laws soon after the Oregon initiative passed. In June, New Hampshire also passed an open records law, which will take effect January 1.
The Citizens SpeakIn some ways, the issue of an adoptee’s access to information about birthparents is becoming yesterday’s news. Most children adopted today will be provided with unrestricted access to their birth records and other information about their backgrounds, usually by their adoptive parents. As adoption has gained greater acceptance in American society, the number of birthmothers requesting anonymity has been rapidly diminishing.
Many states have created registries in which birthparents and adoptees can declare their desire to meet and provide details of how they can be reached. Another kind of registry involves court-appointed intermediaries who arrange reunions between adoptees and willing birthparents.
Public opinion is veering in the same direction. Last November, a survey by the Web site FindLaw.com found that 84% of Americans believe that adopted children should be allowed to view their adoption records upon reaching adulthood.
Given the changing attitude toward openness, it’s easy to forget that, just a few years ago, the Oregon campaign to unseal adoption records provoked a bitter and sometimes ugly public debate. Supporters of the measure framed it as a civil rights issue, arguing that adoptees should have the same access to their birth records as other Americans. Opponents claimed that opening the records infringed on birthparents’ privacy rights and violated their guarantee of anonymity.
The opposition rallied the media to its cause. Newspapers published editorials saying the measure would ruin the lives of women who had been raped or had hidden unwanted pregnancies. In the heated days leading up to the vote, Helen Hill, the chief petitioner for Measure 58, received hate mail and death threats.
Hill, who now runs an art center in Nehalem, Oregon, had spent 10 years before Measure 58 searching for her birthmother—a goal that took thousands of dollars and the help of private investigators. For her, the initiative was about challenging a system rooted in secrecy and shame.
She joined Bastard Nation, a national adoptive rights group, and contributed $50,000 to the Measure 58 campaign. With her money and Bastard Nation’s organizing acumen, the open-records initiative passed. Legal challenges held it up for another 18 months, but in May, 2000, the Office of Vital Records began processing birth certificate requests.
When the Smoke ClearedAs the national debate on open records continues, Hill and other pioneers in Oregon can offer supporters an important piece of ammunition: The dire problems predicted by the opponents of Measure 58 never came to pass. “The whole thrust of the opposition was that the law was going to ruin the lives of birthmothers,” Hill recalls. But once the measure passed, the predictions ceased.
Without interference from the state, Hill believes, Measure 58 inspired “quiet resolutions” between adopted adults and their birthparents. Numbers tallied by the Oregon Department of Social Services tell the story: Since the law passed, 463 birthparents have requested contact preference forms. Of these, 354 asked for direct contact, and 28 preferred contact through an intermediary. Only 81 desired no contact at all.
Most of the birthmothers who indicated that they wanted no contact did so immediately after passage of the law, says Sharon Pittinger, president of the Oregon Adoptive Rights Association. “Requests for birth certificates continue to increase, while the number of no-contact preference forms has remained stable.”
The Next ChapterAcross the country, it’s hard to gauge the sentiment against unsealing adoption records. But it’s clear that among some groups it remains strong.
“We’re not opposed to reunions per se,” says Tom Atwood, president of the National Council on Adoption, a Washington, D.C., group that lobbies against open-records legislation. “What we oppose is the state becoming complicit in enabling one side to violate the privacy of another party.”
Concerns about privacy and breach of confidence have always been foremost in the argument against open records. But according to Elizabeth J. Samuels, an adoption expert and associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, this stance is at odds with U.S. adoption history. One of the biggest misconceptions about sealed records, she says, is that they’re meant to protect the birthmother’s identity. On the contrary, she notes, “historical research has shown that the concern was to protect adoptive families from possible interference or harassment by the birthparent.” The law has never guaranteed lifelong anonymity for birthparents.
Consistent with this history, adds Samuels, are findings that an overwhelming majority of birthparents do not object to, or actively support, adult adoptee access to records—regardless of how they felt when they first placed the child for adoption.
What about adoptee’s parents, whom the law was meant to protect? Research suggests that parents can also benefit from their child’s free and open access to birth records. Josie Brennan, who reunited with her birthmother, Anna Hurley, a few years ago, says her parents were tearful when they met her—so grateful were they to have had the opportunity to raise her daughter.”
Since few states have a public referendum system, Oregon’s Measure 58 has limited value as a model for enacting open-record laws. Supporters in most states will have to interest lawmakers in promoting such legislation.
To some extent, the future of open-records legislation rests on the ability of the adoption community to achieve a measure of consensus. Among open-records laws, there are provisions that are acceptable to some groups but offend others. Tennessee’s law, for example, imposes a hefty financial penalty on adoptees who violate a birthmother’s no-contact preference, a form of “conditional access” that some adoption groups reject. Other open-records advocates are critical of Oregon’s law because it allows only an adoptee, but not his children or parents, to access his records.
These issues have made Oregon leaders reluctant to predict a wave of success on the national front. “I expected the victory in Oregon to have a domino effect,” said Hill. “But that hasn’t really happened.”
For the thousands of individuals who have requested—and received—their birth certificates, the success of open-records legislation is measured on a personal scale. “I wasn’t feeling the need for a mom or dad because I already had one,” says O’Doherty of her search. “But the medical information changed my life. And it brought a wonderful group of people, my birth family, into my world.”
Linda Baker is a freelance journalist in Portland, Oregon, who writes about adoption and the family.
Open Records at a Glance
Birth records are now available to adult adoptees in Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Kansas, Oregon, and Tennessee. In eight other states, open-records legislation has been introduced or is under consideration. To see what type of access in available in your state, visit The National Adoption Information Clearinghouse Web site.
For more about access to adoption records, look for these article in the Adoptive Families online archives:
"Open Records Are Coming. Are You Ready?” by Susan Freivalds
"How Adoption Grew Secret,” by Elizabeth J. Samuels
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