Why Adoptees Should Have Unrestricted Access to Birth Records

Redacted Birth Certificate

In the 1930s and 1940s, due to social stigmas and climbing rates of unwed pregnancy, many states began creating adoptee privacy laws. Through the late 1960s, the shame surrounding illegitimacy kept these laws in place. Though perceptions have changed and out-of-wedlock births are no longer a scandalous occurrence, most states have not changed this antiquated legislation.

Currently, 41 states still either partly or fully block an adoptee from obtaining his original birth certificate.

Every child is given a birth certificate, yet adoptees have an amended version, with their adoptive parents names on it. Some people ask, “Why do adoptees need to know who their birth parents are?” But this isn’t a simple question to answer, and more importantly, it doesn’t matter.

If a document exists and that document contains your personal information, you have a right to view that document. I can order a copy of my medical records. I can go online and pay some company to see if I have a criminal history.

But somehow, adoptees aren’t allowed to see their own birth certificates.

Some say it’s to protect the privacy of the parents, or more often, the mothers. Regardless of if that’s true, it also doesn’t matter. Even if a mother was promised privacy, the child could not agree to those terms. In order for a contract to be valid, it must be agreed upon by both parties, and neither party may be a minor child.

The child, now an adult, wishes to know who his parents are.

He never asked for anonymity and he has a right to know.

Self-ownership is a basic human right, and at the very core of the concept of self-ownership is knowing who the “self” truly is. If that isn’t enough of a reason, based on my quasi-philosophical justification to unseal all adoptee records, then consider the risk of genetic inheritable disorders.

We now know that certain genetic conditions run in families, but adoptees will never be able to ask the question we all here when we go to the doctor.

“Do you have a family history of…?”

Imagine never being able to offer a doctor your full family medical history. Are you at an increased risk of developing certain diseases? Medical DNA testing can tell if you have a genetic variant that’s been linked to a particular condition, but it can’t tell if you’ll actually become afflicted.*

The presence of a variant is not in itself a diagnosis. For example, if a person’s maternal aunt, grandmother, and 1st cousin had all been diagnosed with the same genetic condition, that person would be at a much higher risk of developing the condition as well. With a DNA test positive for the gene mutation and a known family history, a genetic counselor would more likely to deem the person “high risk” and suggest regular screenings, etc.

Many of us take for granted the ability to relay a full family medical history to our doctors. Adoptees don’t have that luxury.

As of February 2019, only 9 states allow adult adoptees fully unrestricted access to their original birth records.

Adoptees from these states have full legal rights to their own original birth certificates and whatever other records may be on file:

New Hampshire
Rhode Island

In 21 states, original birth certificates and adoption records are sealed, and not available to adoptees without a court order.

District of Columbia (D.C.)
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
South Dakota
West Virginia

The rest of the states technically allow adoptees to request their original documents, but place restrictions on the accessibility of records.1

What sort of restrictions? In Pennsylvania, for example, biological parents were allowed to redact information on old records before they were unsealed. So, although PA is a state that allows access to original documents, an adoptee seeking his original birth record may receive a document with names and locations blanked out.

Privacy is a privilege granted to birth parents who choose to give up their child. Access to personal records is a right that needs to be restored to each and every adoptee. Until that happens, I’ll be here writing articles about how to use DNA to find out the names that are already printed on those sealed birth certificates.

* I’m referring to diseases that appear later in life. Medical testing can accurately identify and predict congenital disorders such as Klinefelter syndrome, spina bifida, and cystic fibrosis.

Return to the adoptee stories.

  1. https://www.americanadoptioncongress.org/state.php


  1. New York has become the h state to allow adopted adults unrestricted access to their original birth certificates, a step that will help some investigate their family histories. A new law effective Wednesday does away with restrictions dating back to the 19 that required an adoptee to seek a hard-to-get court order to access original birth records.

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