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THE ARGUMENT

Should access to vital records be sharply restricted in Massachusetts?

YES

Bruce Cohen

Member of Rockport Board of Health; retired epidemiologist who has worked with vital statistics in federal, state, and local governmental positions for nearly 40 years

Bruce Cohen
Bruce CohenHandout

Massachusetts has an incredibly storied vital statistics system. In fact, the Commonwealth’s annual vital statistics report, published continuously since 1841, is our public health history.

The remarkable increase in multiple births and the impact of fertility assistance were revealed in our birth certificate data when Massachusetts recorded the highest rate of twins and triplets in the country in the 1990s. Our marriage statistics proudly heralded our leadership in the new era of marriage equality. Our vital statistics provide critical information to both reflect on our past and improve our future. That is why strengthening this system is critical and why new measures proposed by Governor Charlie Baker are so timely.

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Most Massachusetts vital records laws have not changed since the 1930s. At the same time, demand for timely information is so much greater for purposes ranging from fraud prevention to medical research. We should follow other states that have successfully balanced the need to provide better, faster data while protecting personal information.

Today, few states allow someone to obtain copies of another person’s vital records, but this is the reality for people born, married, or dying in Massachusetts.

Our legislators in the 1930s did not anticipate the Internet, scam operations, or identity theft. Our vital statistics system is vulnerable, and we should expect our state government is doing its best to keep our information safe.

Unquestionably, data have become more necessary for research, population studies, and other critical purposes. The state Department of Public Health needs a modern-day system that can both respond to data needs like rapid COVID-19 while protecting individual records.

The governor’s proposals move us in the right direction. They close gaps in the protection of individual records by developing a reasonable, very public, regulatory process. Interested parties can work with the DPH to define ways to release data for public health interventions, research studies, genealogy, media, and other purposes, while ensuring individual records are obtained only by those needing them for identification, research, settling estates, and other legitimate purposes.

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I have confidence the department’s intent is not to limit information needed to enhance our citizens’ health and well-being, but to limit the potential for harm.


NO

Barbara J. Mathews

Lexington resident, President, Massachusetts Genealogical Council

Barbara J. Mathews
Barbara J. MathewsThe Picture People

Since 1641 Massachusetts town clerks have recorded births, marriages, and deaths. Those records have always been open to the public. They have critical importance. It is through them that we know how many children will start kindergarten this year; who is old enough to vote, to be drafted into war, to drive a car, or to marry. We know who has died and thus is no longer eligible for financial credit. The public good of open records has been proven over the centuries.

A high standard should thus apply to any effort to close those records. Governor Baker’s fiscal 2021 budget bill includes draconian measures to close records. Vital records would essentially be closed to the public except for people requesting their own.

No effective hard facts were offered to support the need to close vital records. It doesn’t protect the public; one analysis found that consumer ID theft in open records states is the same as in closed records states. Some claim the new availability of scanned images creates a risk, but Massachusetts vital records have been routinely scanned for nearly a decade with no apparent problems.

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The Massachusetts Department of Public Health several years ago refused a request by the Boston Globe for an electronic version of 30 years of state birth records. That closure effort was repulsed when the Supreme Judicial Court returned the case to a lower court, ordering that agencies err more on the side of open records.

This effort in the budget might be an attempt to close open records through legislative action when judicial action takes an opposite stance.

The Legislature enacted two successful vital records bills over the last few decades: one about 35 years ago submitted on behalf of my organization, the Massachusetts Genealogical Council, and a more recent bill submitted on behalf of the Town and Municipal Clerks associations. Neither submitted bill sought any records closure; both passed. Most legislative sessions see at least one bill to close vital records. None have passed.

The record is clear. The judicial and legislative branches of state government recognize that open records are a public good. The executive branch should as well.


As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.