Access Legislation Pits
Facts Against Mythology
by Mary Martin
The great enemy of the truth
is very often not the lie: deliberate, continued, and dishonest; but the
myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.
John F. Kennedy
January 1, 2005, New Hampshire joined Oregon, Alabama, Delaware and Tennessee,
plus the never-sealed states of Kansas and Alaska, in becoming the seventh
state to pass legislation to restore access to their original birth certificates
for adult adoptees. Similar bills await the decision of legislators in
Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut this year.
Legislation was recently defeated in Maine and Missouri.
In Canada, the most recent access bill passed
in Ontario on November 1, 2005. The bill will take effect 18 months after
passage following an extensive public awareness and advertising campaign.
Ontario joins British Columbia, Alberta and Newfoundland in legislating
States and provinces are following a well-defined
trail forged by New Zealand reformers. In 1985, New Zealand became the first
country to allow both adopted people and birth parents to get identifying
information from official records. The Adult Adoption Information Act has
led to over 20,000 reunions, thanks to Kiwi grass roots efforts and advocacy.
Today, over half the adult adoptee population in New Zealand know their birth
New Zealand found that the greatest impediment
to reform was a body of mythology that had sprung from decades of secrets.
Keith C. Griffith, the author and reformist who led the charge in New Zealand,
spent ten years educating the public and elected officials before proposing
legislative changes. When speaking of his decade-long effort, he noted,
The acceptance of untruths did much harm by creating false hope, false
stereotypes and a potentially destructive zealotry that denied the
Statistics and data gathered after passage
of New Zealands Adult Adoption Information Act proved that birth mothers
did not need protection from adoptees, that a majority of adoptees did wish
to search, and that the reunions that occurred did not disrupt adoptees
connections with their adoptive families. Dispelling commonly held beliefs
normalized search and reunion, created an expectation of fully disclosed
adoption for the future, and ushered in an adoption healing movement needed
to address past hurts.
The same myths and zealotry exist in the United
States and Canada, slowing legislative progress to a trickle. Until the myths
are dispelled and the zealotry exposed as fear-based, reformers must carefully
strategize ways to overcome such obstacles. This requires allaying the fears
of those who provide adoption services and who, with the onset of access,
will be forced into systemic change. Adoptive families may feel threatened
by access as potentially leading to the loss of their children. And although
statistics reveal that the majority of birth parents want information about
their children, if not contact, access raises the specter of unrequited
Lessons can be drawn from child advocate Marian
Wright Edelman, who describes the 40 years in which the Civil Rights Movement
took hold as one in which men tried to hold on to dying ideologies
and modes of control. Here is where the hard work for coalitions
First, Educate the Bills
and New Hampshires victories were largely based on the strength of
the respective sponsors, according to Carolyn Hoard, recent AAC Membership
Chair and longtime legislative advocate. The object must be to cultivate
a sponsor who completely understands the issues and is not only totally committed
to achieving the goals set by the grassroots coalition, but also respects
the coalition enough to pull the bill if it is changed so much by other
legislators that it is unacceptable to the grassroots folks.
We need to have strong sponsors who will
stick with us, says Barbara Busharis, AAC Legislative Committee member.
I would prefer to cultivate a relationship with a sponsor and get nothing
introduced in a given year than to pick a sponsor who will introduce something,
but then back off when things get nasty.
Repeat the Mantra: No Harm
answer pervasive fears, coalitions must be armed with the hard data collected
in states and provinces showing that reform measures benefit rather than
harm participants. Just as important is to cite a growing body of research
that reveals that denying the adopted person important life information creates
immediate as well as generational harm.
Paul Schibbelhute, immediate past AAC President,
was the force behind New Hampshires victory. He advises other states
to let the statistics answer the claims that damage would result from adoptee
access. As of January 2006, a year after the bill went into effect, only
eleven New Hampshire birth parents have stated their preference for no contact,
while 784 adoptees have requested their original birth certificate. In more
populous Oregon, 7,687 adult adoptees have received their birth records since
implementation of Measure 58 in 1999, with 79 birth parents requesting no
contact in year one, one in year two, and one in year three. The number
requesting no contact has been estimated to be 0.08% of the birth parent
population in Oregon. In both states, no ill effects have been reported.
Schibbelhute says, When SB335 passed
in New Hampshire it became the third consecutive state to pass legislation
that guarantees all adoptees access to their original birth certificates.
This legislation is working extraordinarily well in states where it has been
Keep the Faith... For as Long
as It Takes
recent defeat of Maines LD1805 was especially bitter for Bobbi Beavers,
the AAC Maine representative who had spearheaded the bill with the ACCESS
2006 coalition. LD1805 was patterned after New Hampshires bill, providing
access for adult adoptees with a non-binding Contact Preference Form for
birth parents. ACCESS 2006 added an amendment that descendants of adoptees
would be included in access. LD1805 was then battered by amendments that
proved unacceptable to Beavers and other proponents, who ultimately lobbied
against the final replacement bill to ensure its defeat. Today, Beavers says,
We are proud of our accomplishments, which include progress in educating
legislators and the general public on the issue of adoptee rights and bringing
together many adoptive parents, adoptees and parents who have lost children
to adoption. We will be working on a name change for our legislative group
since ACCESS 2006 is no longer applicable and will re-submit a clean bill
in 2007, along with exploring other alternatives.
In New Jersey, where access legislation has
been considered since 1980, Judy Foster (AAC State Representative), Jane
Nast and Pam Hasegawa continue educating legislators with the facts. The
latest hitch with their bill was a surprise appropriations note of $1 million
attached as a last-minute defeat measure. Hasegawa says, While sabotage
worked in the short term, it strengthened our resolve, especially when we
realized that even those legislators who did not support the bill were shocked
at the tactics used to defeat it. Now we are happy to report that the bill
has been restored to its original wording without the appropriation.
Foster, Hasegawa and Nast, along with colleagues in the New Jersey Coalition
for Adoption Reform and Education (NJCARE), anticipate a hearing on the original
Be Willing to
American Adoption Congress supports state-by-state legislative efforts to
restore access to original birth certificates for adult adoptees. AAC prefers
unrestricted access to this document for all adult adoptees but will accept
compromise legislation if, in the opinion of AAC and local supporters, such
a compromise is necessary to obtain the greatest access for the greatest
number of adopted persons.
Compromise based on looking beyond myths and
relying on the results of other legislative efforts can be a wise tactic.
Various Ontario governments for over 25 years have tried to open up access
to original birth information. In November 2005, the current Liberal government
was finally successful. Facing formidable opposition from the provinces
Information and Privacy Commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, the Liberal Party examined
the results of contact preference with attached fines in other provinces
and states. Finding no reported violations, they opted for the fine but fought
against the information veto that Commissioner Cavoukian favored.
The strategy resulted in the most progressive bill to date in Canada.
When compromise is considered, however, it
is crucial that terminology is clear and that the compromise should not create
a new blockage to access that did not previously exist. Reformers in each
state need to pay close attention to the effect of bills that may sound more
benign than they actually are. In 2006, for example, at least one state
legislature considered legislation that used contact preference
terminology, when the actual effect of the legislation would have been to
create a binding veto on the disclosure of identifying information. Rather
than being a step forward for adoptee rights in that state, the bill would
have been an endorsement of secrecy. A true contact preference
system, which is working so well in Oregon, Alabama, and New Hampshire, is
a progressive compromise that does not limit adoptees rights to access
their own identifying information.
In a perfect world, the passage of clean
bills that give all adopted adults their original birth certificate
with no attached conditions would be the norm. The current political climate
and the deep pockets of the lobbyist-based National Council for Adoption
require the consideration of negotiating. Strong coalitions have to factor
in the impact of com promise on the future and, like ACCESS 2006, decide
to pull a bill if compromise is carried too far. The acceptance of persistent,
persuasive, and unrealistic myths about the impact of access calls for broader
strategic thinking. For an aging population of adoptees, the middle ground
may be the only access to holy ground in their lifetimes.
Mary Martin Mason, Legislative Committee Chair
for AAC, is an author of one of the few books written about birth fathers,
Out of the Shadows: Birth Fathers Stories. She is a national
speaker on the need for lifelong post-adoption connections and access to
records, relying on her and her sons life experiences, each growing
up in an open adoption.
Excerpted from the October 2006
edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2006 Operation Identity