Adoptee rights advocates are seeking one thing: universal access to one’s own, original, unaltered birth certificate. Don’t people have a right to know where they come from? Should there be any reason why a person wouldn’t be allowed to see their original, unaltered birth certificate? Doesn’t everyone deserve to know the identity of their immediate ancestors, their family medical history, and their ethnicity? Most people do not think about these things because we take them for granted. But countless adult adoptees around the United States are being denied this basic right to know one’s original identity.

As of March 2012, all but eight states (Alabama, Alaska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Kansas, New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island) either restrict or forbid outright access to adult adoptees’ own birth certificates. Some require that the adoptee show a “good cause” for wanting to know this information, as if establishing one’s very identity is not a good enough cause. Many only go so far as to offer to facilitate contact via an adoption registry where both the adoptee and birth parent voluntarily consented to be contacted. Only Minnesota and Missouri solicit consent from birth parents when an adoptee requests access.

There are currently two bills under consideration (as of January 2013) that would give adoptees in Maryland and Pennsylvania access to their original birth certificates. HB22 is under consideration in the Maryland General Assembly, and HB 162 is being considered by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Many of the restrictions placed on adoptee access to their original birth certificates are based on a desire to maintain birth parent confidentiality. However, there is neither now nor ever was a law that guaranteed anonymity to parents relinquishing parental rights to their children. Furthermore, in the states that do seal original birth certificates, this is not done until an adoption is finalized by the court; birth parents relinquish their parental rights long before the adoptive parents finalize the adoption. Therefore, preventing adoptees from gaining access to their birth certificates has nothing to do with the birth parents, since their relinquishment did not result in the sealing of the birth certificate.

Furthermore, relinquishment of parental rights means a severing of all legal rights and responsibilities as parent to the child in question. Therefore, these birth parents no longer have any legal parental rights to the child, including making the decision of whether or not to let the child have access to information about their heritage. Yet most of the states with sealed records allow birth parents to deny their birth children access to their original, unaltered birth certificates. Many only issue the document once identifying information is deleted. Thus, in spite of having relinquished their parental rights, the courts allow birth parents to continue to make this one essential decision on behalf of children to whom they no longer have any legal ties.

Adoptees are the only group of Americans that does not have full access to their original birth certificates. When something doesn’t apply to only one group of people based on an arbitrary characteristic, this is discrimination. Adoptees are being treated as perpetual children. West Virginia, for instance, only allows contact between birth parent and adoptee – even when both have consented via the state’s adoption registry– if both have undergone professional counseling.

The norms surrounding secrecy in adoption originate from a culture that shamed anyone born outside of wedlock, as well as those who adopted due to infertility. Laws preventing access to original birth certificates does not prevent adoptees and birth parents from finding each other in other ways. Having had years of adoptee and birth parents searching for each other and reuniting, it makes no sense to continue to pretend that access to one’s own original identifying information is a basic human right and need.

Credits: Karolina Maria