Louisiana birth certificates. (WES MULLER/LA ILLUMINATOR)
The Louisiana House of Representatives approved a bill Monday that would allow adopted people to obtain copies of their original birth certificates when they reach age 24.
House Bill 450, filed by Rep. Charles Owen, R-Rosepine, cleared the House in a 76-21 vote after debate on the floor stretched from Monday afternoon into evening. It next heads to the Senate for consideration.
The bill proposes that someone adopted as a child would no longer have to petition a court to unseal their original birth certificate. Instead, they would be able to obtain an uncertified copy upon request from the state registrar of vital records once they reach age 24.
A 1977 Louisiana law sealed nearly all adoption records, including the adoptee’s original birth certificate that often contains the identities of the biological parents. When an adoption is finalized, the state issues a new altered birth certificate with the legal fiction that the child was born to their adoptive parents.
The intent of the 1977 law, Owen said, was to protect adoptive parents because there was concern that birth parents might regret the adoption and come back for the children, he said.
Over time, some began to perceive the law as necessary to protect the anonymity of birth parents. Owen said this had the unintended effect of keeping the original birth certificate hidden not just from the public but also from the adoptee. Currently, an original birth certificate can only be unsealed after the adoptee provides a court with a compelling reason to make the record available.
Owen, who was adopted as a baby, told the Illuminator he was 35 when his biological mother tracked him down. Despite having her consent, Owen said he was still unable to obtain his original birth certificate from the state when he tried recently.
The legislation has garnered support from many adoptees, adoptive parents and birth parents who say every citizen has a right to access their true vital records.
The only opposition has come from anti-abortion groups Louisiana Right to Life and Louisiana Family Forum, which argued that anonymity is essential to keeping adoption a viable alternative to abortion, though Right to Life advocate Ben Clapper acknowledged there is no research to suggest the disclosure of birth records has any effect on adoption rates.
Anonymity for birth parents has become a thing of the past as affordable access to consumer DNA testing, through websites such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe.com, allows nearly anyone to trace their genealogy and track down their biological family members even if family members do not use the websites.
“In the world that we’re living in with DNA, the days of anonymity are gone,” Owen said during Monday’s floor debate. “People start connecting dots and they start drawing lines and they find out.”
Owen’s proposal would still keep the original birth certificate confidential from the public, allowing birth parents to keep their privacy.
Owen said he authored the bill more as a matter of transparency and equal rights rather than as an avenue for adoptees to track down their families. The government shouldn’t be able to keep an adult from accessing their own vital records, he said.
“That’s your document that the government holds,” Owen said.
The state already has an adoption registry that allows adoptees and birth parents to voluntarily enter their information, and if a match is found, the state can open an avenue of contact mediated by social workers.
Rep. Wilford Carter, D-Lake Charles, said he doesn’t see how a birth certificate could ever harm a birth mother. Carter said the birth mother can still live a secluded life and have no contact with the adoptee if she chooses.
“It seems like there’s a perception that the birth mother should have more rights than the child,” Carter said.
Questioning the bill, Rep. Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodeaux, said most birth parents likely had an expectation of anonymity when they gave their children up for adoption.
However, Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, pointed out that anonymity was never guaranteed because adoptions are never guaranteed. Nelson explained that an original birth certificate is only sealed years after the birth parents relinquish the child. When birth parents relinquish their rights to a child for an adoption, it’s impossible to guarantee the adoption will be finalized and thus impossible to guarantee the original birth certificate will ever be sealed and replaced with an amended one. Kids who are never adopted and remain in foster care, have only their original birth certificate, he said.
Lawmakers passed one floor amendment that would attach a contact preference sheet to birth certificates when they are sealed. The sheet would later be disclosed with the birth certificate, informing the adoptee whether the birth parents wish to be contacted.
Owen and his bill’s supporters fended off a second and very lengthy floor amendment introduced by Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco, and backed by the anti-abortion groups, that would have created a new vital records registry for birth parents and required the birth parents to first consent to the release of the birth certificate prior to disclosure. It also would have tasked state workers with tracking down birth parents in an effort to get their consent and add them to the registry.
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, gave an impassioned floor speech against Miller’s proposal, saying the anti-abortion groups have created a “red herring” of concern where none exists. Seabaugh reiterated Owen’s point that the bill is about a person’s ability to access their own vital records and said any expectation of a birth mother’s anonymity disappeared years ago with the advent of genetic genealogy.
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