Louisiana birth certificates. (WES MULLER/LOUISIANA ILLUMINATOR)
Some lawmakers call it the most difficult piece of legislation they have ever considered. A bill that would allow adopted people to obtain their original birth certificates when they reach age 24 cleared a Senate committee Tuesday but not without hours of debate.
House Bill 450, filed by Rep. Charles Owen, R-Rosepine, cleared the Senate Judiciary A Committee in a 4-2 vote Tuesday and heads next to the Senate floor. The lengthy debate in committee involved multiple areas of law, ranging from civil rights to privacy issues.
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 could obtain an uncertified copy upon request from the state once they reach age 24.
The bill received significant support in the House, passing with a vote of 76-21. Since then, it has run up against powerful anti-abortion lobby groups and others with financial interests in the adoption industry, both arguing the proposal might discourage women from seeking adoptions.
Owen, a staunch conservative who has championed anti-abortion legislation, said he would have gone nowhere near the bill if he believed it would do anything to promote abortion or discourage adoption. He called those arguments a “red herring” and said his legislation is purely about correcting an injustice of unequal access under the law as adopted people are the only Louisiana residents denied the right to access their true birth certificates.
Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, said Owen’s bill is the most difficult piece of legislation he has ever had to consider in his seven-year career as a lawmaker. Luneau, who like Owen is a lawyer, said both sides have legitimate arguments.
A 1977 Louisiana law sealed nearly all records in closed adoptions, including the adoptee’s original birth certificate that often contains the identities of their 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.
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. 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.
Proponents have said the intent of the 1977 law was to protect adoptive families from the stigma of illegitimacy that existed in society at that time. There was also concern that some birth parents might regret the adoption and seek to keep their child.
Over time, some began to perceive the law as necessary to protect the anonymity of birth parents. Opponents of Owen’s bill now argue that the state should not break the promise of anonymity that lawyers and adoption agencies gave to convince birth mothers to give up their babies.
Although state law recognizes a birth mother’s right to confidentiality in adoptions, it does not recognize a right to perpetual anonymity. Proponents argue that confidentiality is not the same thing as anonymity and point out that a birth certificate, which is only one part of a larger adoption file, will remain confidential from the public.
Current law allows an adoptee to obtain an original birth certificate from a sealed adoption file if the adoptee provides a court with a compelling reason. This often requires spending thousands of dollars on a lawyer who specializes in adoption law.
Owen, who was adopted as a baby, said 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. A clerk sitting behind a computer screen in New Orleans was able to see all the names and details on his original birth certificate, yet he could not.
Owen said it is undemocratic that the government can keep an individual’s vital record a secret from that individual.
Although several opponents recounted anecdotes of birth mothers being traumatized by adult adoptees reentering their lives, none of the opposing testimony came from birth mothers themselves. Adoption agency representatives and other opponents contend that’s because birth mothers against the bill are afraid of being exposed.
The only birth mothers who have so far come forward have expressed support for the bill.
Arguing against the bill, adoption attorney Sid Rosteet said the Legislature should protect birth mothers from being exposed because they “chose life” and were promised confidentiality.
The opposition’s arguments have weighed heavily on a Legislature that is overwhelmingly against abortion even within its Democratic caucus, but their views fail to acknowledge what one senator called the “uncontrollable” avenue of genetic genealogy that adoptees can now use to track down their birth parents.
Affordable consumer DNA testing results, through websites such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe.com, allows anyone to track down their biological family members even if those family members have never submitted a DNA sample or used the online service.
Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Ville Platte, said the bill has presented her with the hardest decision she has had to make in her two years as a legislator. She agreed birth mothers should be protected and encouraged to choose life but pointed out that modern technology has already revealed their identity regardless of what the current laws might say.
“Today, our reality is that DNA evidence is exposing everything,” Cloud said. “Everybody has lost protection.”
Proponents argued that forcing adoptees to use online genealogy sources would cause much more unnecessary exposure because a DNA trace often gets many family members involved. Adoptees often begin the trace by contacting extended cousins to gather names and other information that gradually leads them closer to their biological parents.
On the other hand, Cloud said, allowing access to a birth certificate would provide a direct path between the adoptee and the biological parents.
“By giving that one person direct access, you might be negating all kinds of collateral damage,” Cloud said.
Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, dropped in on the hearing and asked if adopted children are parties to a contract that they don’t get to sign. He pointed out that some children are adopted informally by family members or others without any kind of contract, yet the law does not prohibit them from accessing their birth certificates. He asked why an adoptee’s birth certificate is only sealed if two lawyers get together and “cut a deal.”
A lawyer who testified against the bill said birth certificates are also sealed in adoptions managed by an agency.
“So I’m born and I have an agency that dictates my rights into the future for perpetuity?” Cortez asked.
The bill contains a provision that would allow birth parents to request a contact preference sheet at any time from the state Department of Children and Family Services. It would state whether or not the parents wish to be contacted by the adoptee, and the sheet would then be provided to an adopted person who requests their birth certificate.
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