Access Legislation Pits
Facts Against Mythology

by Mary Martin Mason

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       

     On 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 reform.
     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 origins.
     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 truth.”
     Statistics and data gathered after passage of New Zealand’s 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 grief.
     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 begins.

First, Educate the Bill’s Sponsor

     Delaware and New Hampshire’s 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 Done

     To 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 Hampshire’s 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 enacted.”

Keep the Faith... For as Long as It Takes

     The recent defeat of Maine’s 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 Hampshire’s 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 bill.

Be Willing to Compromise

     The 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 province’s 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 son’s life experiences, each growing up in an open adoption.

Excerpted from the October 2006 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2006 Operation Identity