The Adoptee’s Right to Search

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The four sisters sat at a sidewalk café to take in the Floridian breeze over drinks and dinner. Even with the contrast in our looks, anybody walking by would have known we were sisters and our laughter broadcasted our comfortable repoire. We had converged from the west and east coast for the weekend near Fort Myers to celebrate our father’s 90th birthday. The day had been spent with our parents in their assisted-living facility and now we relaxed under the setting sun and soaked each other in, hungry for the chance to commune and confide.

We are different from each other but close. No matter what, our truest selves come out when we are together, for better or worse. We cherish time together as sisters.

I am the oldest sister after three sons. Mary came after me, between the next two brothers; Deborah followed and finally, the baby of the family, Gina.

Mary and I shared a room growing up and Deborah and Gina were roommates. Our family moved several times over the years and our memories are highly contrasted by timing and context. While I have fond memories of my grandmother’s aromatic cooking and cheerful Yankee humor, my youngest sisters remember a scary alcoholic with burnt food in the kitchen and mounds of cigarette butts in ashtrays by the roaring television.

Our memories and points of view are tightly rooted in the timing and evolution of our growing family. My parents waxed into their prime during my youth while my youngest siblings felt their stamina wane at the tail end of the large family we inhabited.  As a teenager, I was grounded regularly for coming home late after midnight. When the younger siblings came in after curfew, it was barely noticed. We lived in different chapters in the family story.

When the status of Kathleen~Cathleen, the working title of the book my first daughter and I have been writing for the past eight years, came up in the conversation, I told them about the “Lost Daughters” blog that my daughter had participated in recently that had resulted in a controversial dialogue that was still under debate weeks later.

The nature of the debate started with the pros and cons of open adoption and evolved into the adoptee’s right to search and access their original birth certificate and information that would reveal the identity of the original mother and birth family.

One of my younger sisters smacked her lips and without hesitation said that the records should remain closed; the birthmother had no right to intrude on the privacy of the child they had given up nor the adoptive family and the information could be harmful to the child. The other youngest sister defended the right of the child to be protected from the birth mother’s identity and possibly unseemly circumstances. “What if she was a prostitute or worse?” “Why should the innocent child suffer information that would just make them feel bad about themselves or their situation if they knew the truth?” and “What about the woman’s right to privacy when she has signed a legal agreement stating that she doesn’t want to be discovered by the child?” “The woman should be protected, too.”

My relinquished daughter and I have been in reunion for almost twenty-four years. I was eighteen when I became pregnant with her in 1970Abortion was barely legal and was still considered a crime. My siblings were still children themselves back then and had no idea that I was “in trouble.”

Then Cathy and I came together in 1989 and my siblings were included in the revelation and celebration that unfolded with the truth. Cathy was welcomed into the family by my most  and the anomalies of her previously invisible existence became part of the family story. My siblings seemed happy that Cathy was part of the family now. As Cathy and I learned how to be together and grew closer, my family seemed supportive and open. In retrospect, my idealism and optimism may have been hard at work. Suddenly I wasn’t sure of anything.

The same sister who welcomed Cathy into her first family gathering at her house pursed her lips tightly and was indignant at the suggestion that an adoptee might have a inalienable right to search and access their birth records. Not only did she reject the idea of the right of an adoptee to search for their birth mother but, in her view, chances were high that the child was better off not knowing. If a mother could give her child away, then there was a reason for it. That woman had made her decision and it may be that this mother should not be allowed access to the child. That child now belonged to other people and they deserved better consideration.

I froze and curled my toes into my sandals as I grappled for words. We had been having such a nice time and then, all of sudden, I was a birthmother trapped in the worst of stereotypes, an unworthy mother with all the scars left by feeling judged as “bad”. Even as witnesses to my own experience, I didn’t hear any compassion in the tone. The adoptee was a commodity, up for grabs in their eyes and the birthmother was just out of luck. I felt sick.

My closest sister watched silently from across the table and didn’t speak as the youngest sisters tossed their argument back and forth. I told them that a legal agreement signed by a young mother does not mean that she doesn’t think of her child every day and might wish to change her mind and be allowed the chance to meet and know her child in an appropriate way. If that child wants to know where they come from and the mother agrees to it, why should anyone interfere or refuse them their right to reunite?

“What if the adoptee wants to establish themselves as an heir entitled to inheritance from their birth parent?” Now the adoptee was presented as a threat to the biological family assets.  “What if the family prohibits the mother from acknowledging the child because of the shame of the circumstances and the culture of the family?”

It’s complicated and it only gets more complicated: in-vitro births, surrogates, alien children from other countries and cultures. What is the answer when there are so many questions?

Underneath I pondered the real question. If a birthmother feels safe because of the privacy veil, it may give her the strength to follow through with the birth. If the child’s birth means a vulnerable future of exposure and shame, that child might not have a chance of birth at all. How much can a woman be expected to bear at a young age before it becomes too much to handle. Confusion in an unwanted pregnancy is a binding dilemma, whatever the answer is. Whether it’s abortion or relinquishmet, you can’t take it back.

But the child born from that decision bears the cost of her heritage. A parent’s decision to relinquish responsibility for the child is a decision of the parent, not the child. Should the child be punished and withheld the right to know? Does an adoptee have the right to their past, positive or negative? I believe people are defined by the generations who came before them, and that generations ahead of them experience the impact of the life they live. More than environment and circumstance, they are defined by their actions and the actions that brought them to bear. To disallow anyone the right to know their origins is to cast them as second-class citizens by the default of adoption. Is that right? If there is hope that the child may seek when they come of age, is there more chance that the child will not be born at all?

There may be harder decisions but I don’t know what they are. Circumventing access to birth records denies a basic human right for that information. There are many reasons for adoption after birth, but in my mind, none of them preclude the child’s right, when they are ready, to know who they are and where they came from. Even if its uncomfortable, there is no substitute for the truth. Hidden or revealed, the truth remains. To impact the true identity of a human being by untying all that connects them to the past condemns them to illusion. I believe that all human beings deserve to know their truth. It may be hard but it’s right. What happens then can go anywhere. That is the moment when the child becomes the author of her story.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, visit ReunionEyes.
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