Adoptees’ bid for access to birth certificates stirs debate

Larry Dell, 68, grew up in New York City with parents he loved. He learned only nine years ago that he had been adopted as an infant, and was one of five siblings in his birth family. “It was a shock to learn that, and the bigger shock was when I couldn’t find out who my birth parents were,” he said. (Jane Dell via AP)

Back in 2000, Oregon and Alabama acted to ensure that people who’d been adopted could get access to their original birth certificates. Advocates of that goal, calling it an overdue recognition of basic rights, hoped the trend would sweep through the nation.

It didn’t happen. The momentum slowed amid fights over personal privacy and other divisive issues. Today, just nine states give adoptees unrestricted access. Others provide limited access. And there’s no systematic access at all in about 20 states, including the four most populous — California, Texas, Florida and New York.

“After Oregon, after Alabama, we thought, ‘Wow, we’re on a roll. These laws are going to topple.’ And then we had to wait years,” said Marley Greiner, co-founder of the adoptee-rights organization Bastard Nation.

The issue remains highly contentious. Some opponents of full access argue that making the birth certificates available on demand would violate birth mothers’ privacy and induce some pregnant women to opt for abortion rather than adoption.

Adoptee-rights activists, while calling those arguments groundless, have divisions in their own ranks: Some are willing to consider compromise bills that provide limited access, while others say it’s wrong to accept anything other than unrestricted access equal to what’s available for non-adopted people.

“It’s a civil rights issue,” said Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, an activist campaigning for full access in New York. “What we have is state-sanctioned discrimination against adoptees. It’s no different from giving you a different water fountain to drink from.”

There’s little chance presently of Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court wading into the debate to forge a nationwide policy; so, for now it’s a matter left to the states.

One striking aspect of the debate is how it doesn’t conform to the Republican-Democrat, liberal-conservative divide that affects so many political topics these days.

The states that offer unrestricted access are mixed in their political leanings — Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Kansas and Maine. California and New York are two of the most liberal states, while conservatives control the statehouses in Texas and Florida, yet the adoptee-rights movement has struggled in all four to make headway on the birth certificate issue.