Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
Adoption and Family Research
We each have a longing inside us to know where we come from, what makes us the way we are. The increased number of people researching their ancestry and the popularity of DNA testing today are the result of that built-in need to connect to our past.
For adoptees, this pent-up longing is particularly poignant as adoption privacy laws have long prevented them from learning any details about their birth. In the past few years, a movement to loosen the restrictions has opened records to adopted adults in some states after a requisite number of years have passed.
Most recently, in January 2009, adults adopted in the state of Maine were given access to their original birth certificates at the stateís Office of Vital Records. Maine joined New Hampshire and six other states with access-to-birth-certificate laws. The day Maineís law went into effect forty adult adoptees were waiting in line to request their birth records.
Maine State Senator Paula Benoit, who is also an adoptee, co-sponsored the legislation. Speaking of the new law she said, "The birth parents have their original identity, the adoptive parents have their original identity and now adoptees born in Maine will finally have their original identity."
Other states have not kept pace however, and still will not release birth information to an adoptee unless the birth parents agree to it. Some 40 states currently allow for the release of identifying information based on the principle of mutual consent, a system that attempts to respect both the birth parentsí right to privacy and the adopted personís desire to know his or her birthparentsí identities. If the birth parent desires confidentiality he/she is protected. Otherwise if both sides consent, the system facilitates the exchange of identifying information.
Birth parents believe mandatory open records ignore their right to privacy, while advocates for mandatory openness believe adopted adults have a fundamental right to know personal information about themselves. Such information is essential to understanding their own identities, and includes knowing the identity of their birth parents, information about their birth and their adoption, as well as information crucial to their family medical history, and even inheritance rights.
Minnesota is the latest state attempting to balance the birth parentsí right to privacy with the adopted personís desire to know. A bill backed by the Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform that will provide adoptees access to their birth certificates has already passed the Health and Human Services Committee. Now it must pass the Civil Justice Committee and the Health and Human Services Finance Committee before going to the house floor. A Senate version of the bill is working its way through that chamber.
Teenage pregnancy used to be shrouded in secrecy and the young mother was not only ashamed of her situation but felt guilty when she surrendered the child for adoption. There is no shame in giving up a baby when itís done in the childís best interest. Many birth parents who have finally met their adult adopted offspring say it was the most liberating and healing experience of their lives. Perhaps the only thing they have to fear is fear itself. As family historians we hope that adult adoptees in Minnesota and many other states will soon have the same access to information about their ancestry as those of us who grew up knowing our family.
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