New Law Opens Birth Certificates, Sparks Questions
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Each week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. And today, we are talking about adoption. Last week, Ohio's governor signed a new law that will allow people who are adopted to get their original birth records.
Many adoptees say the law will finally make it easier for them to track down their medical histories and even their birth parents. But it's also raising some questions about privacy and the rights of those birthparents. I'm joined now by Betsie Norris, executive director of Adoption Network Cleveland, also an adoptee herself. Her organization was part of the effort to pass Ohio's new law. Adam Pertman is the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute - that's a research and policy organization - also a dad of two children who are adopted. Jodi Hodges is a birth mom of one, and she is adopted. And Carol Sanger is a law professor at Columbia University who specializes in family law. Welcome to all of you.
CAROL SANGER: Thank you.
ADAM PERTMAN: Thank you.
BETSIE NORRIS: Thank you.
HEADLEE: So, Betsie, you were part of the effort to get this law passed. It has taken 25 years. What was so important about this law?
NORRIS: Well, it's a human rights issue for adoptees. And Ohio had a unique situation that the records were already open for adoptees that were adopted before 1960. That was my situation. And then for the most part, they were open for adoptees that are adopted after 1996. So we had a 32-year period where they were still closed that we went back to address.
HEADLEE: And, Adam, you testified in this case, correct?
PERTMAN: I did indeed.
HEADLEE: And why was it? Explain to me what is so important about an adoptee - let's say an adoptee is perfectly happy in their new home with a healthy family and healthy with the family that they are. What's so important about finding the birth parents?
PERTMAN: Sure. Let me separate two issues here. The legislation that passed in Ohio and that has passed in many other states in recent years is not about reunions between adoptees and birth parents. It's about access to their original birth certificates, their own records like everybody else in America has. So for the most part, for the - if you listen to the adopted people themselves, they'll frame it as a human rights issue. Why do I not have what everybody else has as a birthright simply because I was adopted?
And so there is that dimension. There is, certainly, a reunion side of it as well. But it is legitimately separate because most people who - reunions in America today are happening at a pace that would stagger most people. They're happening every day a lot. And they're happening in states that have closed records, and mainly, it's because of the Internet. So these are two separable issues, though, many adopted people do use the information they get on that birth certificate to find their birth family.
The quick answer to that specific question is adoptees are normal human beings. They want to know where they came from. We think nothing of it that people and birth families want to know, you know - want to go back to Israel because their Jewish or Ireland 'cause they're Irish. And they want to see what their relatives look like. Well, adopted people are not, you know, some other species. They want to know exactly the same things. And by the way, their birth parents, from the research we've conducted - and I think we've conducted the only research in the field - their birth parents overwhelmingly, you know, high 90 percentiles are just fine with that or actively want it.
HEADLEE: So, Jodi Hodges, you're actually the birth mother to a 7-year-old child, and you had an open adoption. Respond to what Adam just said about birthparents being open to it even if the majority of birthparents are - there are some birthparents that don't want to have a reunion. But that's not you.
JODI HODGES: No. I wanted an open adoption because having been adopted myself, I am actively trying to find information about my birth parents. And it's been quite a challenge. And so I did not want the same obstacles for the child I placed up for adoption. I wanted them to be able to have a relationship if they wanted, ask any questions about why I'd made the decision, health issues I've had - anything about my history. I mean, there are some parents that just want to be able to move on from that part of their life and try and put it in a closed chapter and never have to think about that again.
HEADLEE: And if you're just joining us, we're talking about Ohio's new law that will open up birth records for people who were adopted. I'm speaking with Jodi Hodges, who you just heard, Adam Pertman of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, law professor Carol Sanger, and Adoption Network Cleveland's Betsie Norris. And, Carol, let me ask you here. There are legal issues at play. And, again, there are people who want a closed adoption 'cause, perhaps, the pregnancy began in tragedy or trauma. What is a parent's right at this point to privacy?
SANGER: The birth parent's right?
SANGER: It's not - so there was a case in Oregon in the late '90s when Oregon changed its law to provide for adult adoptees to get their birth certificates. And seven women, who didn't want their names known, so they went into court as Does 1 through 7, sued the state and said, hey, we placed our children for adoption over - it was over a 30-year period, you know, they were in their 70's some of them - because we had a closed system of adoption and we never would have done it if we thought our names would ever become public. So that was one argument that they relied on the law. And they had an interest, and people should be able to rely on the law. And the other thing they said was, we have privacy, too. We understand that adult adoptees want this information, but we have a competing interest, which is our own privacy.
And the court ruled against them and said adoption is a particular kind of legal status. It's one that is invented or provided by the state. You don't have a right. There's no right to have an adoption system. And so because the state has created it, the state can change it. And with regard to the Does' privacy interest, they said, you just got to balance two sets of interests here and because we can change adoption and the people of the state wanted the legislator - you know, that's who the legislator represents - we find that the interests go to the adult adoptees.
HEADLEE: So, Betsi Norris, you were adopted. We mentioned that you searched for your birth parents in the 1980s, that's while the adoption records were closed to you. Did you ever wonder, what if my birth parents don't want to be found?
NORRIS: Oh, absolutely. And my record was actually opened to me because in adoptions prior to 1964 - and I was born in 1960 - the records were already open. But yeah, I was absolutely concerned about my birth mother's feelings and what her circumstances had been, how much this was an open or closed issue for her. And I approached her as sensitively as I possibly could.
But I also didn't want to go through life with the possibility of maybe we both wanted to know, but neither of us, you know, had the guts to take the first move. And as it turned out, when I called her and had chosen my words very carefully, when she realized who I was she said, oh my gosh, I've been praying for this call for 26 years.
HEADLEE: Adam, that obviously syncs up with the kind of research your organization has done. But I understand - and please correct me if I'm wrong - I understand that going into the future, birth parents can actually keep their real name off the birth certificate and thereby maintain privacy in Ohio at least. Is that correct?
PERTMAN: Betsie would know that better than I. I can tell you on a national level, what best practice standards are and what the research shows. And that is that virtually no one is entering into a closed adoption, prospectively. Closed adoptions were predicated on some realities that no longer exist. You know, principally, the stigma against unwed motherhood. Women simply, you know, were pressured not to raise their own children if they weren't married. That - we don't live there anymore. So that's one thing that I think is very important to say. So prospectively, we just don't see that happening, and it's not considered best practice because eventually if somebody wants to find somebody in the Internet world, they're probably going to do so.
So ethically, you better prepare everybody for that possibility going forward, whatever you think of open or closed adoptions. It's simply the reality going forward. And the second thing worth - really worth saying is that if you look at the historical record, the legislative record, it is not true in any state, Ohio or elsewhere, that records were sealed to protect the anonymity or privacy or whatever of the women placing children for adoption. It simply is not in the legislative record. Did some people get told - did some women get told that by well-intentioned social workers, sure they did. And other well-intentioned social workers said, don't worry. When the child is 18, you're going to get to know her. But over the course of time, we have sort of morphed our understanding of what happened into something that really did not. And there's a law professor at University of Baltimore named Elizabeth Samuels who collects relinquishment documents, and we can't find any legal promise of anonymity or privacy.
It simply didn't exist. And again, it's very important to say because we do want women to get what they want. And we don't want to be patronizing and, you know, make them do something that they don't want. The numbers are overwhelming that most of them do want this. And I got to say that if you're 17 and you wanted a closed adoption, shouldn't somebody check in with you to find out if you didn't change your mind? I mean, do we want to be held by law to the decisions we made at the age of 17 or 18? It doesn't stand to reason, and I don't think it's very good for the women involved.
HEADLEE: Well, Carol, let me bring this back to the birth certificate itself because there are - we're talking a lot about women. And obviously, the woman is the one giving birth to the child. But there's a man involved in every single case here. And I wonder what kind of issues come up if, perhaps, the man was not named - the father was not named on the birth certificate. Or, perhaps, the father is named - was not aware that he was the father of a kid 'cause that can happen. What about the issues having to deal with dads?
SANGER: Well, this gets us into a quite different issue, area anyway, of, how is paternity established? And what are the periods of time that someone can claim they are the father? But it's very difficult, as you say, if they don't know. Most of the birth certificates are - don't name the fathers, but some do. And this also adds a kind of additional - if the parents aren't together and there are two people named - two birthparents named, you now have two sets of families with their related relatives. So it can become quite expansive in terms of what this new family's going to look like. But the question of establishing paternity is, there are periods of time when men can make a claim for it, but it's not an open-ended process.
It has to be done within a certain period of time. So the other thing I just wanted to say is for parents who want a closed adoption, which is very difficult to get in the U.S., some go internationally because there still are some parents who have the idea that they want complete control, and they don't want - I don't want to call it interference - but they don't want interaction between their child and the birth parents. So that's another route that some people take.
HEADLEE: And, Betsie, how does this play out in terms of paternity, at least through the Ohio law? We tend to have a different view of privacy when it comes to the issues of a mother versus a father, do we not?
NORRIS: Well, I want to just differentiate for one that the law that just passed in Ohio is specific to birth certificates and adoptions that took place between 1964 and 1996. So we're talking about people who are 17 through 49 right now. And so it's not about open adoptions today, per se. It's about past adoptions when openness wasn't necessarily an option that was provided.
In terms of birth fathers, I would agree with Carol Sanger that most of the birth fathers are not listed on the birth certificates, even if they were quite involved in the situation. They might've been quite involved with the agency. They might be listed in the adoption file at the agency level, but they might not be listed on the birth certificate.
HEADLEE: Which means that many of these - even if they are getting their medical history, they're often only getting half of it.
NORRIS: That's right. And so what I've experienced through adoptees searching is that, most often, they have to get information about who the birth father was from the birth mother or someone who was involved in the situation at the time.
HEADLEE: So, Jodi, help me understand this from the voice of a birth mother yourself. What we seem to be hearing there is that this is a positive development not just for the adoptees, but for the parents that gave their kids up for adoption. Would you agree with that?
HODGES: On a whole, yes. Years ago, we had the baby snatching era where a lot of young women were pretty much forced to give their children up for adoption because of the whole unwed-mother stigma. And I know that a lot of these women are still desperately searching for their birth children. And so for people like that, people my age, pretty much anybody - and I think on a whole, the negative stigma with adoption is no longer a big deal. So a lot of people are wanting to understand and meet their birth children and see where they are, where they've developed, are they happy, things like that.
HEADLEE: And, Carol Sanger, this discussion is playing out beyond just the borders of Ohio. Not only have other states taken action, but others are considering it such as in Connecticut and New York. I mean, I assume that the law is sort of changing, generally, nationwide. Is that accurate?
SANGER: It is. And it's changing because of some of the reasons that have already been given. We don't think - it used to be called illegitimacy is - we now have lots of children who have unmarried parents. We also have different theories of psychological development. We no longer think - we now think that knowing your roots and so on, it trumps the idea that you should be - you'll be better off without the stigma of having once had an unwed mother. But what states are doing - there's sort of a series of issues they have to decide. The first is sort of who - if they're - when they're redoing their law - who has the right to seek, to have it opened.
So Texas, for example, they have a mutual consent registry. So in order to have the certificate - the records opened, both parties have to apply to the registry. Interestingly, Texas also says siblings, birth siblings can apply, which is very interesting. So a sort of expanded notion of family. And then another question is, what can you get? Can you get non-identifying information, or can you also get identifying information. If it's the birth certificate, surely, it's identifying. But some states have taken lesser paths and said, well, we can provide medical information. And then the question is, how do you get it? Used to be you had to go to court and most of those petitions were turned down.
But now, we have registries. Texas uses also Vital Statistics - their federal statistics departments. So those are the sort of issues that legislators have to think about - who? What's the system going to look like? Mutual or just on the request of one? Texas also has a counseling requirement. Before they'll make the actual reunion, both sides have to go to counseling for an hour, separately. And also, both have to write an autobiography and provide two pictures. So that when they have the reunion, there'll be some preparation for it.
HEADLEE: That's Carol Sanger, a law...
PERTMAN: Can I make a quick - sorry.
HEADLEE: We only have about 20 seconds left. I'm sorry, Adam. I have to cut you off.
PERTMAN: That's OK.
HEADLEE: Carol Sanger, law professor at Columbia University, specializes in family law. She joined us from New York City. Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. He was with us from member station WGBH in Boston. We also heard from Jodi Hodges, birth mom of one. She was with us on the line Hope Mills, North Carolina. And Betsie Norris is the executive director of Adoption Network Cleveland, and she joined us from member station WCPN. And that is our program for today on Christmas Eve. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we will talk more tomorrow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.