The XX Factor

Whose Birth Was It, Anyway?

Do you have a right to your own birth certificate, or can the state decide to keep it from you?

For most Americans, that’s a ridiculous question. Of course we can have our birth certificate-well, a copy of it, anyway. But for people who were adopted into their families, this is a long-standing grievance. Whose document is a birth certificate, and who has a right to the information it contains? Adoption advocate Adam Pertman reframes the question as a civil rights issue on Huffington Post . Denying adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates, he says, is denying a minority group equal rights under the law.

States issue an amended “birth certificate” for adoptees showing the adoptive parents as though they were the birth parents. In many cases you can’t tell from the certificate that an adoption took place. (For example, in the absence of some pretty obvious physical clues, I could hand my daughter hers and insist that she’d simply been born to me during a trip to China. Historically, this works a lot better for kids born in, say, Indiana, and the state would support that charade.) The amended certificate serves, from the government’s point of view, all the purposes of the original. Therefore, all the “rights” of the adoptee are preserved-the right to attend school, get a driver’s license, a passport. It’s all completely equal. It’s just different. Separate, you might say.

States argue that preserving the secrecy of those records preserves adoption itself. Looking to the future, without the promise of secrecy, abortion rates will increase and adoptions will fall. Looking back, the states that still restrict most of any access to these records say they’re protecting the rights of the mothers. In effect, they’re arguing that birth certificates belong to birth parents, not to the birthed children. There have been attempts at compromise–state “reunion” registries where adoptees and birth parents can seek one another out, laws granting access to the original certificates in the case of a serious genetic medical condition, even laws that require birth parents to affirmatively deny the release of the records.

Pertman and many adoptees aren’t satisfied. Even beyond the reasons often given for needing access to original information, ranging from the touchy-feely (closure, roots) to the more definitive (genetic predispositions to disease, organ donation), there’s an anger underlying the demand. Whose birth certificate is it, anyway? Who but me owns my identity? What right has any state to keep my secrets? In international adoption, everything from authoritarian regimes to the chaos of war and poverty can hide an adoptee’s heritage. In the United States, it falls to state governments to do the same.