Politics & Policy

The Other Right to Privacy

Pa. and N.J. are poised to weaken adoption confidentiality.

If ever I should run for president — angels and ministers of grace defend us! — I would have a potential birther problem. I cannot get a copy of my original birth certificate without a court order. That is, in my view, a good thing: I was born during the Nixon administration, at the gloaming of American decency, just about three months (call it a “trimester”) before Harry Blackmun pulled a magic constitutional bunny out from underneath his robes and created a constitutional right to surgically dismember people in my position, which at the time was in the womb of a teenage girl not much inclined to raise a child but not yet legally empowered to kill one. Gather ’round, young ones, while the graybeard tells you about the ancient days when there was a stigma attached to bearing a child out of wedlock.

#ad#That stigma was ameliorated in part by the practice of adoption, and, more specifically, by the practice of sealed adoption. While adoption practices have always been varied, the most common model of adoption at the time was the sign-the-papers-and-done adoption, a legal transaction that in practice offered all the finality of an abortion without the attendant bloodshed. There are and always have been other kinds of adoptions — open adoptions, intra-familial adoptions, etc. — and each experience is different. That said, it seems to me that in the great majority of cases, anonymous, sealed adoptions are obviously and unquestionably better for the children, who are spared the drama and confusion that often results from ongoing entanglements between biological parents and adoptive ones, and it’s probably better for both sets of parents, too. Many of those who relinquish children for adoption are very young, and they go on to have lives in which the adopted child plays no role — and families who may not even know that the child exists.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey are about to screw that up. Seven other states have already done so.

Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey are considering laws that would unseal previously sealed adoption records, stripping away guarantees of confidentiality that almost certainly were in many cases a critical consideration. The state legislature in New Jersey already has passed its version of the law, which awaits only the governor’s signature, and Pennsylvania’s legislature is widely expected to follow.

There is a great deal of mush-headedness related to the issue of adoption. A less sentimental and more realistic view is that the relationship between biological parent and biological child is precisely that: biological. It’s of no more real significance than the relationship between organ donors and recipients. But we live under the tyranny of pop psychology, and the promise of a life-changing “reunion” – as though there could be a reunion between people who have never truly met — holds a certain promise to people who believe that something is missing in their lives, a hole in the soul that can be filled only by somebody with whom one shares half of one’s DNA.

What the sentimentalists ignore is that there are a great many biological parents who do not wish to have any sort of relationship with their offspring, and a great many biological children who share the sentiment. For those who feel otherwise, there already is a straightforward method used in many states to connect those who wish to be connected: A biological parent or child may register his desire for such connection with a database, and, in the event one of the counterparties also desires such connection, the connection is made. It’s pretty straightforward, and does not require violating the confidentiality of those who wish to maintain it.

When a biological child attempts to reenter the life of a biological parent, or vice versa, it can be pretty ugly when the desire to do so is one-sided. R. tells the story of her biological mother tracking her down late in life, to disastrous consequence.

I was 35 years old, and, after ten years of marriage and five years of infertility treatment, I was considering adoption myself. With no warning, my father died of a heart attack out of nowhere, and ten days later, after I had just sent the last thank-you note for funeral cards, I get a phone call out of the blue. He asks my name and says, “You don’t know me, but I feel like I know you — you’re my wife’s first-born child.” My response was: “How the hell did you get my phone number?”

It turns out that there was quite a back story to her question, not all of it obviously legal. “I had a sealed adoption in the 1950s,” she says. “You couldn’t get at those records with a jackhammer.” R. made it clear that she did not wish to have any sort of relationship with her biological mother – or the half-siblings who had come later — but they were persistent. She ended up having to threaten legal action to end the unwanted attention.

The press for opening up confidential adoption records began with a demand, not unreasonable, for access to family medical histories, which are valuable but increasingly less relevant in an age of genetic testing. (I recently underwent a round of genetic analysis myself and was shocked by the range of things that can be easily tested for.) But this is the United States of America, where a just-the-facts-ma’am family medical history is entirely insufficient to the therapeutic demands of the culture. The myth of the “missing piece” will not be put down.

Adoption is an admirable act, even a heroic one on occasion — on both sides. The majority of adoptions undertaken today contain a degree of openness or instruments by which connection can be established if it is desired. But a significant number do not. Biological parents seeking an arrangement that promises finality have at the moment two choices. Take away confidentiality and they will have only one: Justice Blackmun’s legacy of brutality. The arrangement is an imperfect one for adopted children, and I sympathize with their feelings even if I do not share them. But it could be worse. Much worse. As trade-offs go, we who were adopted were the recipients of an excellent deal.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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