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Secret Origins

A couple years ago, Kevin Williamson wrote a good piece on anonymous adoption:

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.

He goes on to talk a bit about the options that biological parents and adopted children do have, and the problems that occur when there is a unilateral desire for reconciliation.

In part due to my aversion to abortion, I am inclined to agree with him. I think open adoptions are great, but they are not great for everybody. I fear that women knowing that they can put the child up for adoption and then leave that chapter of their life behind makes it a more attractive option than it otherwise will be. Others want an open adoption because they don’t want to leave it behind and, for the most part, they have that option as well. There is a significant surplus in parents seeking to adopt babies (as opposed to adopting children that are not babies, where supply outstrips demand), which gives birth mothers a lot of leverage over the situation.

The counterargument is that it’s precisely because the parent has so much leverage that sealed adoptions are so unfair. This is true, but given that the mother gave the child life, I believe they’ve earned that leverage. Especially when there is such a deadly alternative available.

Further, past the point of birth, it is the parent that will pay a greater price going forward. If there is the possibility of a child turning up on their doorstep any day, that is something they may have to disclose to future partners. They may have reluctant future partners, horrified husbands, angry parents who would say that they’d have taken care of the child. The child may be missing the story of their biology, but the mother’s life runs a real risk of being upended. This imbalance stacks up pretty heavily in favor of the mother.

Ultimately, though, the tide is going the direction it is going. I expect more states to follow the leads of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and for that to become the norm. I fear fewer families that want to adopt babies will be able to do so, and I expect it to result in more abortions than would otherwise occur (though hopefully other factors continue to bring that rate down).

In the shorter term, it’s unfortunate that the rules are changing from under the feet of the women that – in my view – did make the right decision to put the child up for adoption. They did so with an understanding that there would be anonymity and that they would be able to get on with their lives. So even if I were to be supportive of a shift, the threshold for doing it retroactively ought to be higher than it is.

All of this even applies to medical data, where the argument for disclosure is the strongest. Williamson states that you can get a lot of what you need these days through genetic testing, but it seems to me that family history and such might provide a stronger guide of where to look for things. I am open to increasing disclosure requirements going forward on that, but apart from discreetly asking, I am reluctant to do so retroactively. If the lack of an open birth certificate is preventing adopted children from getting other important documentation like passports, that is something important we should find a way to accomplish without relinquishing anonymity.

Granted, this is all easy for me to say since I know who my mother and father are, and I know my biological lineage. Williamson doesn’t, and it could be said that it’s easy for him to say because he doesn’t especially care to. I would indeed have quite a bit of difficulty telling someone with tears in their eyes sharing with me the hole in their heart where knowing their origins should be, but for me it’s just not quite that simple. Sometimes everything comes down to undesirable options.

baby adoption photo

Image by manhhai Secret Origins

Much of this also applies to laws that allow mothers to abandon their newborns at fire-stations as well. Such a choice could actually be a workaround for some mothers on this, as you can’t produce a birth certificate if it’s not known where the applicable birth certificate is. Of course, that choice can leave the child with no records with regard to family medical history and the like, which is a step backwards from where we could be, but it still provides biological mothers and parents with options and might help push the needle.

Adoption is a very tough decision for any woman or couple to make. Short of giving them gobs of money (at least, I think short of that), I favor doing anything we can to make them more comfortable with that decision.

We could investigate the handful of states that have open adoption rates and especially those that have opened them to see what effect, if any, it has had on adoption rates. Kansas and Alaska have never had closed rates. Like most red states, they have really low abortion rates, but I know little of the adoption rates and in the case of Kansas most of the population lives near a state line. This applies to many applicable states, including Oregon, New Hampshire, and others to a lesser extent. Abortion rates have fallen (and not risen) in states that have opened adoptions… but they’ve fallen almost everywhere (and the rate of the fall is usually related to other factors such as how high the rate was to begin with – further to fall – and perhaps anti-abortion legislation). None of this really touches the retroactive aspect of the laws, though.

I suspect, however, that the debate has ultimately already been settled. Those that favor open access to birth certificates have a strong emotional argument and the biological parents are, by definition, less likely to step forward and make their case. It is also just intuitively wrong to a lot of people to keep such records out of people’s hands. So, for good or for ill, I suspect sealed adoption will become a thing of the past.

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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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19 thoughts on “Secret Origins

  1. Both MrsJay and I are adopted. I do not support the “open adoption” laws. I’m perhaps a bit less concerned with abortion than you are. But I think we need to let people close that door and keep it closed.

    I have never searched for my biological parents, but my wife has. She found her biological mother, and reconnected with a big family that way. Her bio mother was very open to this as were many others in her family. Her search for her father was unsuccessful, due in part to him having a very common name. She turned up one good possibility, but he said, “No, that’s not me.” Who knows? Maybe that’s true, or maybe he had just turned that page, and didn’t feel he could explain this to anyone else.

    Nevertheless, I feel that was his choice to make. For someone who wants to make another choice, there are plenty of avenues available.

    And yes, Will, I wholeheartedly endorse the idea that biology doesn’t mean a lot. Families are made by decisions, not by biology.


  2. I’m ambivalent on open or closed adoptions. I can see a process where the people giving up the child choose one or the other. The heartburn I have is a retroactive change. Assuming I and my partner gave up a child, we have essentially a contract. The state should not be able to go back and change that. Sure, change it going forward, but not back.


  3. I think… that so long as people are willing to be mutual about it, that a closed adoption should be something that MultiplePeople can Consent To Open.

    Say, Mom left Abusive Boyfriend/Husband, who impregnated her against her will. Good reason for adoption, no? (In that keeping the child is likely to give some enforced parental rights to the dad, assuming he’s not a total idiot). Well, if abusive boyfriend/husband winds up in prison, well, then there’s nothing stopping opening the abortion.

    We should ALSO have an option for the mom/dad to submit a “Here’s my medical history. Buh-bye” form. It gives kids some help (possibly including DNA samples), but doesn’t necessitate a potentially messy reunion.

    Adoptions were closed often because babies out of wedlock were very very stigmatized, and being able to pretend that you never got pregnant meant that you were “mostly pure.” As that decreases, well, it’s less of an issue. It’s also less of an issue because a woman doesn’t need a man to survive, and so she can choose to keep the baby and not the hubby.


    • The medical history thing is my only sticking point. While genetic testing might someday make it obsolete, I do see real value in a properly scrubbed, clinical medical/historical record (ppssibly supplemented, as Kimmi notes, with an anonymous DNA sample).

      It does give a truly motivated person more to work with to track the parents back down, but I know that I’d want to know that, say, the nerve condition I’m developing on my left side is not just a thing but will have to be monitored, since it’s hereditary and progressive (but the early signs are easy to miss).


        • Doctor Jay,
          Are you sure? Because there’s anonymous submission of DNA for testing…
          It is quite easy to scrub data of PHI.
          I have given anonymous medical histories to quite a few researchers. (generally targeted because Research).


          • Let me unpack what I’m talking about. It takes far less information to uniquely identify someone than you might think. And in this day and age of data mining, it is possible to leverage this fact to identify someone.

            As an example, it is possible to pinpoint the exact location of someone who is driving in their car by reading only the accelerometer data over the course of the first 2 or 3 turns. Map data is that unique.

            I think medical histories are probably that unique, too. One of these, plus one of those two, probably narrows you down to a pool of just maybe a hundred people in the world, only one of which lived in the right place at the right time.

            Anonymity is hard.


            • Doctor Jay,
              This is not the legal picture.
              Can you cite sources on that accelerometer data? I am curious.

              Are you perhaps supposing that we’d be giving dates and times, or something? This is probably going to be a checkbox form on “has had XYZ” the way you fill out in doctor’s office, plus a bit extra for “your parents are weird and special cased”

              Dates and times are easy to scrub. you can get referential “got gestational diabetes, got real diabetes 10 years later” differential dates.


              • My source on the accelerometer data is a friend who works for Google in the privacy/anonymity field. I realize this is not especially satisfactory as evidence. But I think what’s under dispute is the number, not the principle.


              • “Can you cite sources on that accelerometer data?”

                It’s called an INS and it’s not all that secret. People have been using them as navigational instruments for decades.

                And as Doctor Jay points out, you can convert a road map into a mesh of nodes (intersections) with elements (street lengths) connecting them, and a sufficiently powerful computer can take a sequence of travelled street lengths and find it in that mesh. (Indeed, “look for this sequence in a database” is basically what Google does.) I’m sure that you could do some fancy math-major stuff and turn the mesh into a matrix and then do fun things with the matrix–like, maybe Waze works out the best route by doing matrix mathematics on the road grid?


  4. I generally agree Will. The Mothers choice is paramount in my point of view and there is an implicit promise in the form of a closed adoption that the roles will not be retroactively changed. Though I am not one myself I would think that pro-lifers should be extremely opposed to this kind of thing. Anything that makes adoption harder or more fraught is invariably going to heighten the appeal of non-adoption alternatives and with adoption coming bundled in with nine months of stress, pain, discomfort, medical risk, hormonal haywires and professional difficulties it already has a steep hill to climb.


    • I agree with this. I, too, largely agree with Will T., but I would advocate for gobs of money for the mother carrying to term, provided the funds do not create a reverse incentive. I believe we have an obligation to help the weakest among us, but toward the end of gathering strength rather than remaining in weakness. That said, I’m not convinced that government is the appropriate vehicle for providing such assistance.


  5. Since the medical information issue seems to be a sticking point, how about a system where the relevant agency, but not the parties, know who is who and when adopted kid needs medical information the agency gets it from biological parent and gives it to the adopted kid’s doctor? As far as the parent and kid are concerned, everything goes into or comes out of a black box.


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