Access to Adoption Records: A Civil Right?

In an article written on February 6, 2012 in the New York Times, titled ‘Adoption and the DNA Family Search’, author KJ Dell’Antonia, an international adoptive parent,  reported on the issue of adult adopted children seeking their birth records. In her article, Dell’Antonia explains that some, particularly Adam Pertman, an adoption advocate,  have gone so far as to declare access to information on birth parents to be a civil rights issue, and that denying adult adoptees access to their original birth records is denying a minority group equal rights under the law.

Dell’Antonia also cites to a January 23, 2012 New York Times article authored by Rachel L. Swarns, who demonstrated that “a growing number of adoptees, now in their thousands, are turning to DNA testing companies in hopes of piecing together the puzzles of their beginnings”.  In their search, Dell’Antonia and Swarns indicate that adult adoptees are turning, in greater numbers, to DNA databases to find relatives. The problem is that these databases are small and incomplete. Furthermore, while there may be many services which are tailored to adoptees seeking information about their genetic roots, she notes that the obvious problem is that finding relatives is conditioned on relatives having their DNA recorded on such databases.

For a person who has been adopted, there are many unknowns about that person’s life that affect that individual and their psyche. Some consideration must also be given to biological parents who put their children up for adoption. They may wish to keep certain facets about the process continually unknowable. That is usually the purpose behind a closed adoption. But to go so far as to declare access to birth records as a civil right may seem problematic as well. For example, children are placed for adoption in certain instances on the condition that their genetic parents’ identity will not be revealed at any time. It is possible to foresee that if laws provide for unlimited future access to birth records, those parents who did not wish to be found, can be located. As a result, it is also possible to foresee that those parents who would place their children up for adoption based on a meaningless condition of a closed adoption, may opt out of adoption as an option, with the potential of adding to the burden of an already overstretched welfare state.

The problem also lies in the fact that the adoptive parents may feel emotionally undermined as well. Even in the most supportive households, there are consequences to telling those who raised you and loved you that you wish to seek out your genetic parents. Many who belong to adoption support groups and who post to online communities regarding adoption, fight with their emotions in this area. On the one hand, they feel this strong urge to find biological closure. Yet they also recognize that the adoptive parents may be hurt by engaging in such a search.  As an international adoptee, I’ve often been asked by others if I wish to find my birth parents, to which I consistently respond that I do not. I find that I am perfectly happy with the life I have been given by the family who took me in when I was six-months old. Further, I know it would wreak emotional havoc on my mother to undergo such a search, even though she outwardly expressed her support for me if I was to try to find my birth parents.

Such considerations should be evaluated and legislation should not be enacted to regulate this intensely private area with respect to the adoptive parents, the child, and the adoptive family.  That being said, it is undeniable that many other adoptees, who were the products of international adoption or closed adoptions, will continue to seek out information regarding their birth families. Closure aside, there is a unrelated question that hangs over the head of many adoptees, ‘what inheritable conditions and disorders may I be facing in the future?’   The only reason that I do not totally disagree with Mr. Pertman’s statement above is that there are medical reasons for many to seek such information. For those who are not adopted, the answers are clearer even without the need for genetic screening. Certain types of cancers, mental disorders, and other conditions can be predicted based on family history, and even prevented if appropriate steps are taken; for an adoptee with no access to birth records or genetic screening, these remain persistent and uncomfortable unknowns.

So how is one to strike a balance between a medical need for genetic history, the desire of birth parents to remain anonymous, an adoptee’s emotional need and desire for closure, and the adoptive family’s wellbeing? This is clearly not a very easy question to answer, but I believe it must fall short of declaring unlimited access to birth records a civil right. To declare it a civil right undermines the purpose behind closed adoptions which still constitute a sizeable portion of all adoptions in the US and more so international adoptions. In terms of medical need, there are methods to genetically screen someone to determine hereditary conditions that may arise in the future. These can be performed without access to birth records, but the issue here is clearly cost. As technology develops, the cost of genetic screening will undoubtedly decrease.  Until then, however, many must continue to live with this health related uncertainty.

There must be some middle ground between the civil right declaration and having no right at all. Perhaps access to records should be limited to medical need. Perhaps it should be conditioned on consent of the most relevant parties, particularly the adopted adult child and the birth parents. Undoubtedly biological parents may change their minds and allow for themselves to be found. But to declare access a civil right as a blanket policy does not take into consideration the myriad of emotional consequences that affect all parties involved.