The Ohio governor's signature on the most recent original birth certificate (OBC) access law in the United States has sparked debate within the adoption community once again about what should be considered "acceptable" legislation. Lost Daughters readers are likely familiar with the OBC issue within the United States. For the sake of brevity, I will say that Ohio HB 61 (passed as Substitute Senate Bill 23) originally sought to give all adoptees in Ohio the same access to their OBC that all others enjoy. Clearly against Ohio activists' wishes, the bill was amended to make access conditional by providing one year for original mothers to remove their names from OBCs. Julie and Karen already did a great job explaining the new law and their own differing opinions on it. I wanted to contribute to the discussion of what makes acceptable legislation by answering the question: how do I know a good bill when I see one?
Provisions inserted into policy that make OBC access for adoptees conditional include: contact vetoes, disclosure vetoes, redacted certificates, mutual consent registries, and blocked-out access periods determined by date of birth, (to name the most common). Adoptee Rights activists do not ask for these conditions. Conditions are written into bills by legislators who perceive controversy over restoring equal (unconditional) OBC access to adult adoptees. Are these conditions acceptable? I say no.
The most common defense of supporting access legislation that contains these conditions is that the majority of adoptees will benefit. Although this utilitarian approach, the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people, seems reasonable, it's not the only applicable moral equation. On the other hand, I argue that the adoptees who would be a part of that minority who is denied access are so important that our community's needs cannot be seen as met if these individuals are left behind. This is what social policy is for: to address the needs of a community.
I evaluate social policies utilizing Chapin's Strengths Perspective Policy Principles as a framework. In this post, I summarize the eight strengths-focused policy principles as they pertain to Adoptee Rights, in case they may be useful to you too.
#1 A community's problems cannot be the foundation upon which a social policy is built.
Isn't this where these conditions placed upon access come from? Conditional access provisions are based on the ideas that unconditional access would increase abortion rates, or would expose original mothers who want secrecy. One additional argument is that adult adoptees are incapable of ever being mature enough to access their OBC. None of these provisions for conditional access are focused on the strengths of adoptees, the community of individuals whose OBCs are sealed. All of these provisions are based on negative stereotypes of adoptees, original mothers, and adoptive parents and families.
Furthermore, none of the above reasons for making access conditional are true. Abortion has not increased (it has actually decreased) in states with unconditional access. We know from research that secrecy was never promised, that OBCs were never sealed for this reason, that the dire social consequences imagined about this legislation are untrue, and that original parents by and large are not pushing for secrecy. I don't think it's necessary to get into how the myth of perpetual immaturity of adoptees is plainly misguided.
What do we risk when access with conditions is made law based upon these above myths? It concretizes the societal perception that these harmful myths are true.
#2 A community is exclusively entitled to define the problems they face.
The problem that the adoptee community faces is that adult adoptees in 44 states do not have the same access to their OBCs that adults who were not adopted enjoy. In essence, it is not simply holding an OBC in our hands that restores our equality. I have my OBC and was subjected to two vetoes for this opportunity--this is not equality. The process through which we obtain this government-issued document determines if the law respects our equality. The fact of the matter is, no other citizen in the U.S. is denied their OBC, or subjected to conditional access provisions, except for adult adoptees.
After defining the problem, the lack of regard for our equality, we must opperationalize the problem by determining what need the problem created and how to address this need. Adoptees need their equality recognized. Our goal to fulfill this need is to restore, acknowledge, and honor the equal rights of adult adoptees. Conditions to access do not fulfill this goal, address this need, or solve this problem.
#3 Structural barriers that prevent a community from having their rights upheld must be emphasized and confronted.
In abrupt departure from this principle, conditional access legislation removes systemic barriers for some adoptees while constructing barriers for others. This legislation is often promoted because the majority will benefit, and it divides adoptees in a given state into two groups. The group that is larger, and therefore has the most power, benefits. The small minority is left behind to advocate for the rest of the restrictions to be lifted so that they too may benefit. Let's look at Tennessee, with one of the longest-standing conditional access laws, as an example. After a court battle, Tennessee granted adoptees access through an active mutual consent registry with both contact and disclosure vetoes. Fifteen years later, those vetoes are still in place.
I will also argue that conditional access formed upon the idea of adoption secrecy increases the difficulty of fixing the law later. We know from research, like Professor Elizabeth Samuel's recent study, that there is no evidence of promises of secrecy to original families. Conditions placed upon access legislation based upon the idea of secrecy potentially legalizes a secrecy that did not before exist within the law.
#4 Social policies should promote equality and be free of discrimination.
Disallowing adoptees to have the same document that recorded their birth that all others receive, because of their family composition and decree of adoption, is discrimination. If the law allows anyone to be denied their OBC because they were adopted, even if most adoptees enjoy access, it is still discrimination.
#5 Social policies and programs should operate by building upon a community's strengths.
What are the adult adoptee community's strengths? We are resilient and resourceful. We have reached adulthood and are capable of following the laws other adults follow. Strengths-based legislation does not pathologize adoptees, treat them as secrets, or regard them as perpetual children. Conditions placed upon access do not honor our strengths or the strengths of our families.
#6 Social policies should be created by the community the policies affect. The role of professionals [or those with power otherwise] is that of collaborators or allies.
Often those in the forefront of representing adoption policies are not the people affected by them. In Adoptee Rights, there are a number of professional organizations sought out to publicly voice what access legislation ought to look like, including advocating for conditional access, yet rarely are these representatives adopted themselves. The adoptee community contains no shortage of experts who could be sought out for insight on policies that impact our community. Conditional access provisions treat adoptees with suspicion, not as experts, and reinforce unfair power structures that disenfranchise us.
#7 A community must be involved in all stages of the progression of a policy; the policy must focus on access, choice, and empowerment.
Adoptees must be involved in all stages of creating any policy that impacts them. When conditions are added to access legislation, the adoptees who stand to be denied are the ones who will be impacted unlike any others. They absolutely must have a say in policy-making, and are entitled to voice that a bill that excludes them is unacceptable.
It is possible to include the potentially-denied adoptees in the conversation before a given bill passes. Despite sealed OBCs, a great number of adoptees already know who their original parents are. Adoptees who have been rejected by their original families may already anticipate that they will be vetoed or their record redacted if a new law allows such things to occur. What these adoptees have already endured on an interpersonal level they will endure once again when their government denies them a record denied of no other citizen.
#8 All social policy must be monitored and evaluated for its effectiveness in meeting a community's needs.
This last principle essentially sums up everything I have attempted to relay in this post. We must look at how the policies that leave adoptees behind affect those adoptees. We must examine how we react to those who have been left behind, and ask ourselves if we are dedicated to continue to fight for them. Ultimately, disagreeing with conditions placed upon access is not about criticizing the activists who fought so hard for bills that were amended outside of their control. My fellow advocates at Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights and I have fought for over four years for our own OBC access bill to experience any movement whatsoever. Finally, on its very first passing out of the House, HB 162 was amended to make the unconditional access age nineteen. We are incredibly disappointed that, if made law, adult adoptees born in PA must wait one year longer than anyone else to access their OBC. It's not fair, and it reinforces the idea that adoptees are perpetually immature. It isn't an equality bill any longer, and I refuse to call it one. No, I can't blame policy activists for what they can't control. However, I will write to defend and to hear those who are denied or who will be denied. I will acknowledge what it must feel like for them to hear that being left behind is a victory. I will validate them when they say that condition placed on access just aren't right.
Chapin, R.K. (2011). Social policy for effective practice: A strengths approach (2nd ed). New York: Routledge. See chapter 5.