Friday, November 03, 2006


Adoptees deserve access to birth certificates

New Jerseyans who were adopted should have access to medical information that may help save their lives.

Adoptees should not be the only people in New Jersey who are denied information about their family medical history, their ethnicity and their origins.
For 26 years, the state Legislature has struggled to find middle ground between adoptees seeking critical information on birth certificates and their biological parents who might have received promises of lifelong anonymity. The state Senate is again considering legislation that would open birth certificate information to adult adoptees. It is important that, this time, lawmakers in Trenton end the secrecy that keeps adoptees ignorant of their past and possible risks to their health.
Opponents of giving adoptees access to their original birth certificates have prompted legislators to endlessly second guess themselves. The New Jersey Bar Assocation, American Civil Liberties Union, Catholic Conference and others argue that many birth parents who gave up their children might have expected and still desire lifelong anonymity. An anti-abortion group cautions that the bill could lead to women choosing abortions over adoption.
There is scant information to support either of these objections. It is not known how many women would choose abortion if they could not secretly give up their child for adoption.
And adoption agencies and attorneys who handle such legal issues are the most vocal about maintaining the anonymity of birth parents.
Certainly, there may be some parents who do not wish to be contacted by the children they gave up. But the bill addresses that issue. It will give birth parents two years to opt out of having their contact information -- but, importantly, not their medical histories -- made available to adoptees. The bill includes $1 million to publicize the proposed change in New Jersey law so birth parents have time to protect their identites. In this nearly seamlessly wired and connected world, it is difficult to imagine that any birth parent who wants to remain anonymous would not get the message.
There is more concrete evidence that New Jerseyans, including birth parents, believe it's time to change the state law.
A survey recently done by state Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Woodbridge, a bill sponsor, found most birth parents would not mind unsolicited contact from an adult adoptee. And a Monmouth University poll last year found that more than two-thirds of New Jerseyans surveyed supported giving adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. When the people polled found out the kind of information that would be available, the support for opening adoptees' sealed birth certificates increased to 90 percent.
When confronted with the emotional issue of adoption, it is impossible to be equally fair to adoptees seeking critical information on birth certificates and biological parents who might have received promises of lifelong anonymity. But this bill comes very close.
To make it more fair, legislators should consider amending the bill to always allow a birth parent to opt out of being contacted. But the parent should never be able to withhold vital biological information that could be life saving or affirming for an adoptee.
When the Legislature sealed adoptee records in 1940, lawmakers claimed it would assure people adopting children that the birth parent could not turn up at some futue date to embarass the adoptive parents and the child.
Back then, adoption, like cancer, was something families tried to hide from other people, as if there was something inherently wrong with those going through that experience.
Times have changed. Adoption is not a social malady to be hidden. What adoptees don't know can be detrimental to their health. They deserve for the state to be open and honest about their births, or least their biological background. The state should allow adoptees the same kind of access to their heritage that other New Jerseyans take for granted.
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