By Susan Perry
With the Catholic bishops much in the news lately – as they protest what they see as politics intruding into their religious life – I’d like to offer another perspective. For the past 10 years, as I have testified in Trenton for the Adoptee Birthright Bill, I have watched as religious interests have violated my civil rights in a very personal way. Every year, the NJ Catholic Conference of Bishops lobbies to defeat an adoption reform bill that would allow adoptees, as adults, to secure their original birth certificates (OBCs). This opposition is based on unfounded fears and misinformation. The bishops do have money, however, and they are significant players in New Jersey’s political arena.
First, a little background. Currently, an adopted adult in New Jersey has no right, by law, to his or her OBC. When a child is adopted, a new “amended” certificate is issued that lists the adoptive parents as the child’s mother and father. It doesn’t matter why an adoptee might need or desire to know her own roots – her only recourse at present is to initiate a search that often requires a lot of time and money.
One would think from the Bishops’ unyielding stance on this issue that the idea of adult adoptee access is new and untested. Yet England opened its records to adult adoptees in 1975. The states of Kansas and Alaska never sealed adoptees’ birth certificates. Alabama reinstated access in 2000, having only sealed records from adoptees in 1991. Oregon approved an access law in 1998, which took effect in June of 2000. New Hampshire’s access law took effect in 2005, and Maine’s in 2009. Rhode Island’s governor signed an access bill into law last summer.
Here’s what we know from the collected data. By 2011 in Oregon, 10,410 adoptees had applied for and received their OBCs. Eighty-five birth parents requested no contact during that time period, and not one complaint was issued about an adoptee approaching a birth parent against his or her will. In New Hampshire, 1,315 adoptees received their OBCs from 2005 through 2011, while just 12 birth parents requested no contact. In the two years after Maine enacted its bill, 848 adoptees received their OBCs, and eight birth parents requested no contact.
In view of these statistics, the Bishops’ claim that adult adoptee access violates the privacy of birth mothers is absurd. Even opponents of access admit that there was never any legal provision assuring a birth mother that her identity would remain a “forever” secret to her offspring. And data from NJ DYFS shows that 95 percent of birth mothers are open to contact from their relinquished children.
In place of adult adoptee access bills, which have been upheld upon appeal by the Supreme Courts of Tennessee and Oregon, as well as the U.S. Court of Appeals (6th District), the Bishops suggest mutual consent registries or confidential intermediaries. Yet registries have been found repeatedly not to work – New York State has had one since 1984, and 95 percent of registrants are still waiting for a match. The intermediary system is degrading and fundamentally unfair – a fact that perhaps only those who have experienced it can appreciate.
I used one and had to pay $400 for the service – to try to retrieve a birth record that technically belongs to me. Obviously, I never signed any contract approving the practice of sealed and amended records, and we have plenty of information to show that the system does not serve an adoptee well. I resented the fact that I was not permitted to conduct my personal affairs on my own. I am not a child, yet the process placed me in a child-like position. My agency was lukewarm about adoptee access and was therefore not very accommodating. Eventually, I abandoned the intermediary process and found my birth mother with the help of a private investigator. For the record, she is that woman the opposition says it wishes to protect. She had never told anyone about me except for her own mother, and she did not wish to have continuing contact. She was, however, willing to share medical and personal information that would be helpful to me, and the data tells us the vast majority of women would be willing to do the same.
Lack of genetic information can be life threatening, and there is no rational reason to force adoptees to live in the Dark Ages going forward. The facts show adoptions increase, and abortions decrease, with more openness. Kansas, which never sealed its records, has always had a lower abortion rate and a higher per capita adoption rate than the four states surrounding it.
The Bishops’ position is unreasonable and insulting to every member of the adoption triad. It is insulting to me, to my dear mother and father who raised me to become a sensitive and responsible adult, and to my birth mother, who the Bishops depict as a helpless child in need of protective custody. Perhaps most telling is that many Catholic women who have worked in the adoption field do not agree with the Bishops’ stance. In 1992, the executive directors of Catholic Charities in all five dioceses of NJ recommended to the NJ Catholic Conference of Bishops that adult adoptees be allowed access to their OBCs with no strings attached.
The Bishops rejected the recommendation then, and this past June, they urged Governor Christie to reject the access bill that had passed in both the Senate and Assembly by substantial margins. The governor’s “conditional” veto gutted the bill, as the Bishops and other opponents had requested, and replaced it with an expensive and unworkable confidential intermediary system. So when the Catholic Bishops complain about their religious convictions being violated, my response to them is this: Will you continue to trample on my civil rights and the rights of other adult adoptees to secure their own birth records this legislative cycle? Will you continue to support an outdated system of secrecy and lies that serves less than one percent of those who actually live adoption? Or will you show compassion, study the literature, and advocate for the civil rights of those who do not possess the political power that you do?
Susan Perry is a member of NJCARE, an adoptee’s rights advocacy organization