Adoptions used to be synonymous with secrecy. Mothers who “gave up” children were shamed, made to grieve in silence and grapple with unresolved loss. Adoptees who yearned to seek out a birth parent were often discouraged from doing so, or frustrated by the impenetrable closed-adoption process that was favored for many years. Attitudes and laws changed as society came to understand the courage of birth mothers, the commitment of those who choose to adopt, and the questions many adopted people long to have answered.
But one odd remnant of that unenlightened age remains in Massachusetts — adopted people born between July 17, 1974, and Jan. 1, 2008, do not have the right to obtain a copy of their original birth certificate. The gap was created by two legislative acts. In 1974, a state law took effect that — ostensibly — protected the privacy of birth parents by limiting access to birth data. Eight years ago, another law lifted the prohibition, but legislators did not apply the change retroactively. That means only people born on either side of the 34-year period between the two laws (or, in the case of a minor, their adoptive parents) can get an original birth certificate without a court ruling.
Fortunately, there is a way to fix to this gap. A bill pending on Beacon Hill would grant equal access to birth certificates to anyone adopted in Massachusetts, regardless of their birth date. The legislation, sponsored by state Representative John H. Rogers of Norwood and Senator Michael F. Rush of West Roxbury, both Democrats, has been referred to the House Committee on Steering, Policy, and Scheduling. The committee should move to schedule a vote before the current legislative session ends this summer. More than a dozen states, including Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, already have passed similar legislation that allows all, or nearly all, adopted people to request a copy of their original birth certificate.
Beyond the inherent civil right to personal identity, being able to get an original birth record can help adopted people chronicle their biological parents’ physical and mental health histories — information that potentially could save lives.
In the past, opponents of moves to open up access to birth certificates have cited promises of confidentiality made to birth parents. But Adam Pertman, chief executive of the nonprofit National Center on Adoption and Permanency, says no documentation has ever been produced that shows that to be true, nor is it even possible to extend such a sweeping long-term protection. Birth parents years ago “weren’t promised anonymity,” Pertman says. “It was forced upon them.” A statistical study by the American Adoption Congress found that only 1 out of 2,000 birth mothers requested no contact with a child they put up for adoption.
Another objection — that making birth certificates easier to get will result in more pregnant women opting for abortion over adoption — is not backed up by what has happened in states where access is not restricted, according to Access Massachusetts, a grass-roots group that has been working for passage of the state bill now under consideration.
Such dissent has dissipated over time as thinking about adoption has evolved, and support for the Massachusetts legislation appears solid. Adoptees, no matter when they were born, deserve the same right to their personal information that everyone else takes for granted. They shouldn’t have to wait any longer.