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Opening old files-should adoptees discover the identity of their biological parents?
By E. Wayne Carp
E. Wayne Carp and his book on the history of adoption.
In December 1998, Oregon voters passed, by a margin of 57 to 43 percent, Measure 58, a citizen's initiative that permits adoptees over the age of 21 to access their original birth certificates. From a historical perspective, Measure 58 is a daring new strategy in the Adoption Rights Movement-a citizen's initiative rather than a legislative statute-and its success is unprecedented.
Before the 1950s, there was no Adoption Rights Movement because the records were open to adult adopted persons and to birth mothers. After World War II, adoption officials sealed the records, for complicated reasons. In the aftermath, the Adoption Rights Movement was born, founded by a twice-adopted, middle-aged, ex-social worker named Jean M. Paton.
Although she quietly built the movement, it did not take off until the 1970s when a new generation of adoptees reached adulthood and found they were denied access to their records. They demanded the right to know who they were and to reunite with their biological families.
In the past 30 years, the Adoption Rights Movement has met with opposition and success. Opposition has come from unwed birth mothers who contend that adoption agencies promised them secrecy at the time of relinquishment in order to protect them from the stigma of illegitimacy. Success has come from state legislatures which have provided mechanisms, such as adoption registries and confidential intermediary systems, that rest on the consent of both parties and thus preserve the rights of both.
But, except for a few states such as a Kansas and Alaska, which never sealed their records in the first place, the Adoption Rights Movement has never won unimpeded access to adoption records. This is why Measure 58 is so historically significant. It was successful by using the initiative process and by narrowing its demand to give all adult adoptees full access to their original birth certificates, rather than to all adoption records. But it also trampled on the rights of birth mothers; immediately after passage, seven anonymous birth mothers, arguing that the initiative broke the promise of secrecy that adoption officials made them decades ago and thus invaded their privacy, challenged its constitutionality.
For the next two years, Measure 58 wound its way through the courts until the Oregon Supreme Court upheld it and the U.S. Supreme Court, on June 30 of this year, refused to hear the case on appeal.
With the passage of Measure 58, momentum appears to be growing for similar initiative campaigns across the nation. A group calling itself Washington State Open 2001 is planning just such a campaign for November 2001; like Measure 58, it would open original birth certificates to the state's adult adoptees. If it qualifies for the ballot, we in Washington will also be given the opportunity to decide these profound questions of adoptees' rights.
This fall, history Professor E. Wayne Carp will be among four speakers in Pacific Lutheran University's Fall Lecture Series. He will speak about the Adoption Rights Movement: the controversial effort by adopted people to gain legal rights to view their birth records and, thus, learn the identity of their birth parents. His talk is titled: "Oregon's Ballot Measure 58: The History and the Future of the Adoption Rights Movement." See the box for information about this and the other speakers in the series.
Professor Carp has been teaching American history at PLU for 14 years. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1981 and is the author of the prize-winning book "To Starve the Army at Pleasure: Continental Army Administration and American Political Culture, 1775-1783" (University of North Carolina Press, 1984) and, most recently, "Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption" (Harvard University Press, 1998). Carp also has written numerous articles on the history of adoption and edited a volume of essays titled "Adoption in History: New Interpretive Essays" (forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press). He currently is writing a biography of Jean Paton, the founder and "mother" of the Adoption Rights Movement.