A Louisiana lawmaker has proposed legislation that would allow adopted people to obtain copies of their original birth certificates once they reach age 24. (WES MULLER/LOUISIANA ILLUMINATOR)
A committee of Louisiana lawmakers will take another week to decide whether to advance a bill that would allow adopted people to obtain copies of their original birth certificates once they reach age 24.
State law currently provides adopted individuals only limited access to the information from their birth records, mostly connected to vital health data. The author of the bill, Rep. Charles Owen, R-Rosepine, voluntarily deferred the legislation Tuesday after a morning of emotional testimony in the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure from adoptees and adoptive parents in support of the bill and an anti-abortion group that opposes it.
Owen, who was adopted as a baby, told the Illuminator he was 35 when his biological mother located and contacted him for the first time. Despite this, he said he still is unable to obtain his birth certificate from the state.
Tuesday’s committee hearing prompted a variety of difficult questions regarding the equal protection of citizens under the law, whether the right to privacy means the right to anonymity, and to whom do birth certificates belong.
House Bill 450 proposes that a person who was adopted as a child would no longer have to petition a court to unseal their original birth certificate. Instead, they could obtain an uncertified copy upon request from the state registrar of vital records.
One’s ability to access their own vital records might seem like a fundamental right of every American citizen, but that’s not the case in Louisiana, adoptive mother Tyler Koch said.
In a closed adoption under Louisiana law, nearly all records, including the original birth certificate that often contains the identities of the biological parents, are sealed and not accessible to the adoptee. The state issues an altered birth certificate with the legal fiction that the child was born to its adoptive parents. The original can only be unsealed with a court order after the adoptee proves a compelling reason to make the records available.
In line with most research on the topic, several who testified at the meeting said the antiquated laws that sealed the birth certificates were written primarily because of the social stigma once attached to adoption.
“Chuck [Owen] and I used to be branded as ‘illegitimate,’” said LeRoy Lambert, a lawyer and former adoptee who spoke in support of the bill. “Any purported need for confidentiality makes a host of assumptions about the way things work.”
Lambert pointed out that access to consumer DNA testing is inexpensive and widespread through websites such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe.com. It allows nearly anyone to trace a person’s genealogy and track down their biological family members even if those family members do not use the websites. Law enforcement authorities have used consumer genealogy websites to track down criminals whose identities were unknown for decades, such as the Golden State Killer.
Lambert said the process of a closed adoption is a contract between the birth mother and the state. The privacy afforded by the contract might benefit both parties at the time, but it should not be allowed to infringe upon the rights of the adoptee once they become an adult, he said.
Were promises made?
Speaking against the legislation, anti-abortion advocate Ben Clapper with Louisiana Right to Life said a birth mother’s right to privacy in an adoption is essential to keeping adoption a welcome alternative to abortion.
Clapper said no birth parents could come to speak against the bill because “their story is a confidential story.” When asked by lawmakers, Clapper said there is no research or data to suggest that the disclosure of birth records has any effect on adoption rates.
In 1977, the Louisiana Legislature approved a law that recognizes a birth mother’s right to privacy in an adoption. Clapper said the state should not go back on the promise it has been giving to birth mothers for 45 years.
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, pointed out that the four people who testified in support of the bill were all born prior to 1977 yet are still being denied their birth certificates even though the privacy law was not in effect when they were adopted.
“So if that confidentiality was not in the law at the time, we’re not breaking any deal or contract or agreement that was entered into at that time,” Seabaugh said.
In a post-meeting interview, adoptee Kenny Tucker of Arabi said it’s somewhat misleading to claim that birth mothers were promised that they would never be identified, and it would be irresponsible if any adoption agencies actually made such promises, he said.
In a closed adoption, the birth parents have little to no contact with or knowledge of the adoptive parents. Birth parents sign away all rights to the child, and the child is then placed with a prospective family through either an adoption agency, a private attorney or the foster care system.
The adoption is finalized only after the child has been living in the adoptive parents’ home for some time and after various state requirements, such as post-placement home visits, have been satisfied. It is only at that point, when the adoption is finalized, that an amended birth certificate is issued, Tucker said.
However, when birth parents relinquish their rights to a child for an adoption, it’s not guaranteed the adoption will be finalized and thus not guaranteed the original birth certificate will be sealed and replaced with an amended one, Tucker said. In those cases when a child remains a ward of the state until they are an adult, they receive the only birth certificate they have — the original one. He said opponents of the bill sometimes don’t understand this and often confuse privacy with anonymity.
“A right to privacy is not the same as a right to anonymity,” Tucker said, adding that an adoptee’s access to a birth certificate does not diminish the birth mother’s privacy. The birth certificate and adoption records would still be sealed to the general public, and all parties can still choose whether to live privately without contact among one another, he said.
During his opening presentation of the bill Tuesday, Owen said he would work with all sides in an effort to reach some level of agreement on the legislation.
The anti-abortion group proposed an amendment that would require the birth mother to submit an affidavit agreeing to the disclosure of the birth certificate unless the birth mother is deceased, in which case the record would be released. But Tucker said a person’s ability to access their own vital records should be the default.
“To whom does a birth certificate belong?” Tucker said.
In a conversation with Owen after the meeting, Tucker proposed the idea of allowing birth parents to select a “do not contact” option whenever an adoptee requests their original birth certificate. This would allow birth parents to maintain their privacy while also giving adoptees the birth certificate and the true life history they have always longed for, Tucker said.
Many states have some variation of laws that allow an adoptee to obtain their original birth certificate either immediately upon request or if the birth mother has not objected to the disclosure via an affidavit. According to the U.S. Children’s Bureau, those states are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and the Virgin Islands.
The committee is expected to reconsider the bill when it meets again next Tuesday.
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