Myths and History

Earlier this week I read a New York Times opinion piece. The piece, written by Steve Inskeep, is about adoption, adoptees, birth records and the law. I usually hold my breath a bit when I start reading these sorts of articles. Sometimes, they include references to “pitting” non-existent birth parent privacy rights against adoptees’ desire to know their truth. Or they may make baseless predictions of “maladjusted” adoptees shattering the lives of poor birth mothers. Sometimes the predictions are the other way around, sounding like some bad made-for-TV movie where the evil birth parent attempts to take advantage of the now grown and successful adoptee. But, the message is always the same: no good could come from opening birth records to adopted persons.

Of course, none of the scenarios described above include anything like real people in them. Instead, they are extremes built from stereotyped caricatures. Despite this, these storylines and their single-faceted players are frequently offered as likely ones if adoptees were to gain equal access to their own birth records. They are damaging to all parties in adoption. They also erroneously conflate equal access rights with contact.

Fortunately, I found none of this when I read Steve Inskeep’s New York Times opinion piece. In fact, I was excited to see that he got the history and reason for sealed records correct. Even those who support equal access rights sometimes get this wrong in their articles, furthering the myth of birthparent privacy rights.

In his article, Mr. Inskeep first goes into some details of his birth mother’s relinquishment story. In many regards, it’s a fairly typical story, especially for the 1960s. Young, single and pregnant, she let go of her son. Soon after, a married couple adopted him.

Seeking Answers

Like many adoptees I’ve known, Mr. Inskeep didn’t actively seek information until he, himself, became a parent. But, when he sought answers, the brick wall that many adoptees know so well stood in his way. Perfect strangers were hiding the key to the record that holds the details of his birth.

Mr. Inskeep was adopted in Indiana, a fully sealed records state at that time. But, Indiana law recently changed. Many persons adopted in Indiana can now access their own original birth certificates. He requested and received his. Doing so changed how he viewed the circumstances of his birth, relinquishment, adoption, and the states’ involvement in keeping his own story from him.

As I read Mr. Inskeep’s article, I thought back on my reunion and my subsequent attempt to obtain my own birth certificate. I thought about the struggle in state after state to level the access law between adopted and non-adopted persons. But, mostly, I thought about the rich genetic and family history I now know.

My Two Family Trees

I keep two family trees on Ancestry.com. One, is my adoptive family tree. It is a family history of which I am a part, including in the legal sense. I also have my biological family tree. This is a genealogical record of my lineage. But, it is also a family history of which I am a part. Even if I’d never reunited, I’d still be a part of this family history. I was, after all tangibly present, even if for only a short time, in this family. But, that fleeting presence deeply affect many members of my first family. It was not until after I reunited that I understood just how deeply.

For me, the feelings of connectedness I have when I work on each of these trees differ in some ways. While I feel a part of both, there is something visceral in knowing how I originated from a long, unbroken line not only of anecdotal components, but of physical ones, as well. Non-adopted people can take this for granted. But, it’s not a feeling I’d experienced until I knew my own human origin. I was brought into, rather than formed from, my adoptive family. While I do not minimize the importance and significance of that by any means, it simply could not complete the whole picture, especially for an avid genealogy buff like me. There were too many questions left unanswered.

Unlike many adoptees, I was fortunate to find my answers when I reconnected with my birth family. The state still denies me access to my own birth certificate. For all its progressiveness in certain areas, California has not yet opened original birth certificates to its adopted citizens. And, for many adoptees, finding answers will only start with that record.

Mr. Inkeep’s New York Times opinion piece reminded of the important role knowing one’s own history can play is his or her life. The state denying adoptees the right to their actual birth records, a right enjoyed by the non-adopted, needlessly hinders their ability to seek out that history if they wish to do so.

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