By Lorraine Ahearn Staff Writer
It's the one document most people receive as a birth right. And if we happen to misplace it, an uncertified copy is still just a nickel at the Guilford County Register of Deeds.But for more than 42,000 North Carolinians who were adopted before 2000, authentic birth certificates remain locked away by law. With them remain locked away family and medical history, unless adoptees spend thousands of dollars on lawyers or private investigators to gain access. A discussion in this space Sunday about pending state legislation to release birth certificates to adoptees after they turn 18 generated keen interest — and some thoughts on why proposed reforms failed in the past.Briefly, the bill backed by adoptee advocates and private agencies such as Children's Home Society would, in its current form, do three things:1) Allow adoptees who turn 18, or their adult descendants, access to their original birth certificates.2) Create a form birth parents can file, saying whether or not they desire contact with their adult offspring.3) Provide for a medical history form that birth parents can fill out to give the child updated information.The group that has successfully lobbied against past plans to open records, the N.C. Family Research Council, isn't against the medical history form, but opposes opening birth records. As in the past, the group raised the spectre of fewer adoptions and more abortions as a result.But that hasn't been the experience of states with open records, noted Roberta McDonald of the N.C. Coalition for Adoption Reform.Alaska, which has open records, has the highest adoption rate in the nation, according to the U.S. Census, and Kansas, also open, is No. 5 in adoptions. At the same time, Alabama's abortion rate has declined despite the opening of adult adoptees' birth certificates.McDonald, a Durham resident who located her birth mother four years before the mother died in 2000, said the reality is that many birth parents themselves don't fear reunions, but long to find out what happened to the offspring they relinquished.In Oregon, one of seven states that has opened its records, 8,000 original birth certificates were issued to adult adoptees, with only 83 "no contact" requests submitted by birth parents.One time Children's Home client Chuck Gardner offered the perspective heard least, the birth father: At 18, he got a girlfriend pregnant, gladly signing off on the adoption."At the time, I felt like I'd gotten a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card," said Gardner, now 46 and living in Charlotte. "Then as you grow up, you're always thinking, 'Is he doing OK? Is he alive?' "Through a "search angel," someone who scours public records for free, Gardner did, at last, locate his birth son last summer. Their correspondence has been gradual, after Gardner first called the adoptive mother."She said she'd always been afraid of getting this phone call when he (the adopted son) was a child," Gardner said. "But now that he's a man, she said it was different."Greensboro resident Francie Portnoy is an adoptee who located her birth mother, but not to replace the mother who raised her."She'll always be 'Mom,' " Portnoy explained. "My birth mother will always be 'Judy.' "Adoptees and parents acknowledge that such "reunions" are emotionally charged. But some argue that the secrecy that cloaked adoption in the past century turned a positive choice into a painful, fearful taboo.Wrote Portnoy, now a grandmother: "I never could understand the double messages that are part of adoption. If it is so wonderful, why do we have to be legislated into secrecy? "Only by acknowledging the entire truth ... can we make it totally healthy. Secrecy is not a great way to build families."