Laws ease adoptees' search for their past
Unsealing records stirs privacy issue

By Kirsten Scharnberg
Tribune national correspondent
Published January 16, 2005

CONCORD, N.H. -- They came to the dim basement office of the state's Division
of Vital Records for very different reasons.

One man had been searching for his birth mother for the better part of a

One woman, the mother of an 18-year-old daughter, had just been diagnosed with
breast cancer and was desperate to know whether the disease ran in her
biological family.

One state lawmaker, an adoptee herself, was there to make a stand for civil

As the result of new legislation in New Hampshire, all these men and women were
able--for the first time in their lives--to see their original birth
certificates during the past two weeks.

The law, which went into effect Jan. 1, makes New Hampshire one of only five
states to fully open such records to adult adoptees, a move that is hotly
controversial because it invariably reveals the names of one or both biological
parents and bucks the country's long tradition of keeping that information
secret in the interest of privacy.

"In essence, this law is declaring that those birth certificates and the
information on them are the property of the adoptee," said Paul Schibbelhute,
vice president of the American Adoption Congress, an advocacy group for

In its first two weeks, the New Hampshire law has touched off emotionally
charged debate among birth parents, adoptive parents, adoptees, abortion foes,
adoption agencies and lawmakers in other states considering similar measures.

Advocates of adoption, for example, suggest that pregnant women will be more
likely to choose abortion if they do not have a guarantee of anonymity with
their adoption. Some birth parents--those who have never told anyone about that
chapter of their past--are fearful of having lives interrupted with an
unexpected and unwelcome knock at the door. And still others argue that New
Hampshire's law essentially amounts to a declaration by the state that the
names on all adoptees' amended birth certificates--their adoptive
parents--aren't really legal or important.

"This law sends the message that an adoptive family is not a real family and
that an adopted person is not a full person until they've tracked down their
biological family and had a reunion," said Tom Atwood, president of the
National Council for Adoption, an adoption advocacy group.

The New Hampshire law was in large part the brainchild of state Rep. Janet
Allen, a Republican from Barnstead who grew up knowing that she and her brother
were adopted. Allen had spent years attempting to track down her birth parents
without the aid of a birth certificate. She eventually succeeded, and when she
was first in line and became the first person in the state to get a copy of her
original birth certificate on Jan. 3, none of the information on the document
was new to her.

"I wasn't there to have some mystery solved," she said. "I was there because I
believe it is a basic civil right to be able to get your birth certificate.
Every other citizen in the country can get their birth certificate except for
people who happened to have been adopted."

The battle over which--if any--records from adoptions should be open is not
new. Most adoption records were sealed in virtually every state between the
1950s and 1970s, when out-of-wedlock births carried much more of a social
stigma and when the primary concern was to prevent birth parents from later
seeking out children they had given up, said E. Wayne Carp, the author of
"Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption."

But in the 1970s, as a generation that had grown up during an era of sealed
records reached adulthood, a movement for opening those records was born. A
woman named Florence Fisher sued in 1979 to challenge a New York state law that
said adoptees could obtain their birth records only if they could show "good

The suit failed, and records have remained shrouded in most states ever since.

Steve Varnum, 52, was a young man in Massachusetts in the 1970s. Although he
adored his adoptive parents, he wanted to know the circumstances of his birth.
Varnum went to the state records office and literally sneaked a look at his
file while a harried clerk wasn't paying attention.

Reunions vary

"There are a lot of ways adopted people feel different from other kids, and
some are as basic as not looking like your parents or as complicated as feeling
a social stigma," Varnum said. "But I found the act of sneaking a look at my
own birth certificate the most demeaning thing I've ever experienced."

Varnum used the information to find his biological mother, and the two remain
close today.

But such reunions are not always happy. Atwood said many women who give up
children for adoption struggle for years with the decision.

"Being contacted without warning puts these people in a lose-lose situation,"
he said. "They can agree to see this child even if they are emotionally
unprepared to do so. Or they can choose to hurt that child who they never
wanted to hurt."

New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, who raised two adopted children,
knows something about that. When his adopted daughter found her birth mother,
D'Allesandro watched the young woman grieve for months when the mother didn't
want a reunion.

"My daughter was crushed," the senator said.

Still, D'Allesandro, a Democrat from Manchester, supported the new law for one
key reason: so adoptees could obtain the medical history of their biological

"My daughter has had a number of health issues," he said. "And now she has a
daughter who is experiencing similar problems."

But those who oppose open-records laws counter that requests for medical
histories can be honored without identifying the birth parents. Atwood said
many states will act as an intermediary to obtain medical information for an
adoptee who is seeking it.

Further, he said, most states have put in place a system by which reunions
between adoptees and birth parents can be facilitated--so long as both sides
are interested.

New Hampshire's lawmakers put in place a contact-preference provision that
allows birth parents to attach to birth certificates a notice of how they feel
about being contacted. They can note that they want to be contacted, that they
want to be contacted only through an intermediary, or that they do not want any

Still, the provision does not prevent adoptees from ignoring their birth
parents' wishes. In contrast, Tennessee levies fines against those who ignore
requests for no contact.

Perhaps the most watched part of the New Hampshire law is whether other states
follow suit. Carp, the author, thinks they will.

"There is definitely a move toward openness," he said.

Indeed, New Hampshire modeled its law on a similar one in Oregon. But there was
one key difference: instead of legislators passing the statute, the citizens of
Oregon approved the law in a statewide vote.

In addition to New Hampshire and Oregon, the other states to open original
birth certificates to adoptees are Kansas, Alaska and Alabama.

Illinois favors privacy

Illinois has long favored the privacy of those who give up children for
adoption over adoptees' desire for information.

In 1995, proposed legislation to make Illinois adoption records completely open
never even made it to the House floor for a vote. Last year, Democratic state
Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, an adoptee, spearheaded legislation that allows
court-appointed intermediaries to do extensive records searches on behalf of
adoptees. The bill became law on Jan. 1.

Feigenholtz now is asking Illinois residents to contact her with their thoughts
on legislation similar to New Hampshire's.

"I would like to know if there is still interest among Illinois adoptees in
having access to their original birth certificate," Feigenholtz says on her Web

Such legislation affects a large population. Experts have estimated that there
are 6 million adoptees in the country.

Even as the national debate intensifies over opening original birth
certificates, people are routinely using other means, such as Internet sites
and national search organizations, to find birth parents.

"In this day and age, I find it hard to believe that any birth parent believes
that knock on the door will never come," Varnum said.

A good friend will come and bail you out of jail . . . but, a true friend will
be sitting next to you saying, "**** . . . that was fun!"