Refuted by the Facts: Catholic Claims About Restoring Birth Certificate Access to Adult Adoptees

On Tuesday, March 18, 2014, the Pennsylvania Senate Committee on Youth and Aging will hear testimony regarding HB162,  a bill which would restore the rights of Pennsylvania-born adult adoptees to access their original birth certificates. The House of Representatives passed HB162 with a unanimous vote. There was no opposing testimony offered during the hearing.

In contrast, it has been confirmed that representatives from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and Catholic Charities Adoption Services and Specialized Foster Care for the Diocese of Harrisburg will be testifying in opposition to the bill at the Senate committee hearing. This is a course of action that I find perplexing because the reasons Catholic organizations such as state Catholic Conferences and Catholic Charities brances often give for opposing access legislation like HB162 are easily proven to be completely unfounded and nothing more than mere conjecture. Let’s take a look at the two most prominent claims made by Catholic organizations opposing access legislation and apply the currently available data.

1. Natural parents were legally promised total anonymity, and have a legally guaranteed right to privacy, from their own children because they relinquished them for adoption.

Catholic organizations in many states oppose restoring equal access to adult adoptees based on the notion that some natural parents might not wish to have contact with their relinquished adult sons or daughters–and that this personal desire is a legal right granted through adoption. Contrary to what many in society have been led to believe, there is not one document involved in any adoption that legally guarantees natural parents total anonymity from their own sons and daughters. In most states, an adoptee’s file and original birth certificate can be opened at a judge’s discretion. As such, it is a legal impossibility that a natural parent could assume total anonymity from the adoptee.

Elizabeth Samuels, a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, conducted research on the issue of birth parent privacy. Her paper titled Surrender and Subordination: Birth Mothers and Adoption Law Reform offers her review of legal surrender documents signed by natural mothers. According to the abstract for the paper, “Finally, the article analyzes the provisions of the surrender documents. The analysis of the provisions definitively supports birth mother advocates’ reports that women were neither offered a choice of nor guaranteed lifelong anonymity.”

Additionally, birth certificates are not amended until an adoption is finalized. Children who are in foster care because the parental rights of their parents have been terminated, and who have not been legally adopted, use and have access to their factual birth certificates. If the amending of birth certificates was contingent on the privacy of natural parents, the process of legal fiction would occur upon termination of parental rights. Instead, an adoptee’s birth certificate is only amended upon the finalization of adoption. One can conclude, therefore, that the amending of birth certificates is for the adoptive parents’ benefit and has nothing to do with natural parent privacy.

Based on these facts and Samuels’ work, it seems that some Catholic organizations, including the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, are mistaken. No natural parent has a legal guarantee, through adoption, of confidentiality, privacy or anonymity from his or her offspring. As such, claims to the contrary, as often presented by Catholic organizations, are not supported by facts, data or evidence and do not hold up as valid reasons to continue treating adult adoptees as a class of citizen differently than non-adopted adults. Of course, if any Catholic organization would like to share an actual example of a legally binding, adoption-related document specifically stating that the natural parents involved were legally afforded a right to total anonymity and confidentiality from their own offspring, I would be more than happy to revisit my conclusion.

For now, I would encourage Catholic organizations who oppose access legislation to consider that what an adult adoptee may choose to do, or not do, with the information contained on his or her original birth certificate is a personal matter and not one that requires the involvement of state governments or religious organizations. Adult citizens manage their personal engagements with other adults on their own every day. And there are many options available to any adult citizen who does not wish to engage with another adult citizen. As such, when it comes to adult adoptees accessing their own original birth certificates, the personal preferences of some (natural parents who do not desire contact with their sons or daughters) should not be given priority over the legal rights of all adults who were adopted as children.

2. If expectant parents knew that the unborn child they were considering for adoption could access his or her own original birth certificate upon reaching adulthood, more of them would opt for abortions instead.

I have to be totally honest and express that I do not even understand this assumption made by many Catholic organizations. My lack of comprehension is due to the fact that the available compiled data indicates that the exact opposite of this assumption is true.

Let’s consider research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute in 2008. A study of 38 American women who obtained abortions was conducted in 2004. The women represented a sample from a larger study on the reasons for deciding in favor of abortion. According to a press release on the study issued by the organization, “Without being asked directly, several of the women indicated that adoption is not a realistic option for them. They reported that the thought of one’s child being out in the world without knowing if it was being taken care of or by whom would induce more guilt than having an abortion.” Based on this evidence, one can easily determine that the very nature of adoption–which involves no guarantees of knowing that one’s child is being cared for properly–is a valid reason for some women to opt for abortion over adoption. Taking this into consideration, it seems to me that restoring the right for adult adoptees to access their original birth certificates would, in fact, provide some assurance to expectant parents and perhaps influence a decision to not abort.

Adult adoptee and Roman Catholic priest the Rev. Thomas Brosnan agrees. During the American Adoption Congress conference in 1996, he offered a compassionate and insightful talk titled Adoption & Faith: Coming of Age Toward a Spirituality of Adoption. During his talk, he stated that “The act of relinquishment is so wrenching an event that young women have told me that they chose to abort their babies rather than relinquish them to adoption. Some of us may judge this to be the height of selfishness, but I wonder if there is not some instinctual response involved in making that drastic decision. No matter what the reasons for relinquishment might be, however, the emotional response to the act of relinquishment is analogous to abortion, an unbloody abortion if you will, but as Dr. John Sonne had pointed out in his workshop yesterday, ‘a psychological abortion’ nonetheless.” In considering Brosnan’s words, I find myself even more perplexed by the claim made by some Catholic organizations who feel that if adult adoptees, including the Rev. Brosnan, were to access their own birth certificates, the abortion rate would increase.

It is also important to consider Alaska and Kansas, states that have never sealed the original birth certificates of adoptees. Both states have also been noted as having very low abortion rates according to data compiled in 2010 by the American Adoption Congress. The same data also revealed that in the states with more recent restored access, abortion rates lowered significantly following the passing of access legislation. As such, data clearly shows that access legislation will not result in a major increase in abortion rates. So I honestly have no idea what sort of rationale some Catholic organizations are using to make this particular claim. I can only conclude that there is some hidden agenda or reason behind these claims and that the organizations hope legislators will simply take the claims at face value and not require any supporting data. I personally feel that our legislators are much more astute than these Catholic organizations suggest and that they are able to discern fact-based evidence from religious-based conjecture.

Again, if any Catholic organization can provide data or evidence supporting the claim that restoring to adult adoptees access to their own birth certificates would result in a major increase in abortion rates, I would be more than happy to revisit my conclusion.

Thoughts for legislators
There are currently many access bills in various states under consideration that are opposed by Catholic organizations using the two claims referenced here as reasons to deny adult adoptees–many of whom were adopted through Catholic adoption agencies–access to their original birth certificates and the right to equal treatment under law. Because of this, I now ask legislators to please consider the substantiated facts and available evidence. Please do not allow yourselves, as elected representatives in state governments, to be influenced by claims with no supporting data that are offered by religious organizations.

Watercolor Tree Email Small 132 x 160We acknowledge and affirm that providing adopted adults access to their original certificate is not only good practice, but also, more importantly, the right and just thing to do. 

~ From testimony offered by the Catholic Conference of Ohio on March 13, 2013

Documents referenced in this piece:
Surrender and Subordination: Birth Mothers and Adoption Law Reform
Concern for Current and Future Children: A Key Reason Women Have Abortions
Adoption & Faith: Coming of Age Toward a Spirituality of Adoption
AAC Access Legislation and Abortion Stats

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