At the beginning of the 1900s, grim predictions punctuated the debate over women's suffrage. Everyone in the family unit would be damaged in innumerable ways if this outrage were allowed to happen, argued the critics, some of whom went so far as to predict the end of civilization itself.
Half a century later, another historic social change was in the offing, and the warnings of impending disaster were at least as dire. Indeed, some opponents of the movement to extend civil rights to people of color in our country were so sure that personal and social ruin were lurking around the corner that they fought with filibusters, nooses and guns to maintain the status quo.
Forecasting the future evidently is a difficult thing to do. Looking back is obviously easier, and it leads to two unambiguous conclusions. First, whether the effort is to give women the vote, provide African-Americans with equal rights, create access for people with disabilities -- or level the playing field for any other discriminated-against segment of the population -- there will be nay-sayers who insist that horrible things will occur if the sought-after change is allowed to transpire. Second, they will be wrong.
No, this is not a commentary about "don't ask, don't tell" or any other gay rights issue, though the identical observations would certainly apply. Rather, it's about providing legal and moral equality for a segment of our population that is not generally perceived as deprived of any rights: the approximately 7 million Americans who were adopted into their families. And the right denied to most of them is so basic that it almost sounds like a joke: access to their own original birth certificates.
There are lots of reasons that adopted people want the same documents, containing the same information, that the rest of us take for granted. Some have medical motives, including individuals who need a matching organ or information about an inherited disease; others want to know about their heritage or genealogy (anyone remember Alex Haley?) or why their eyes are green or what their original names were; and many yearn to see the faces of the women and men who gave them life.
At the bottom line, however, those are not the reasons it should matter to everyone that adopted people, on reaching the age of majority, cannot automatically obtain their own original birth certificates like the rest of us. We should care, and we should feel outraged, for the same reason so many men supported suffrage for women and so many white Americans joined the civil rights struggle -- because we should find it offensive when any minority group in society is deprived of equal rights.
Here's where the nay-sayers come in. Honest-to-goodness, the following are among the consequences they say will occur if state legislatures give adult adoptees the right to access their original birth certificates: The number of adoptions in our country will fall, the number of abortions will rise, the lives of women who were promised lifelong anonymity when they placed their children for adoption will be ruined and, yes, adoption itself will be in peril.
Research in the field, including by the independent, nonpartisan think tank that I head, refutes or calls into serious question every one of those claims; here you can read the latest report on the subject.
Equally important, this is not a guessing game or a social experiment. During the last decade, more than a half-dozen very diverse states in terms of geography and politics -- from Oregon to Alabama to Maine -- have done what the nay-sayers warned them not to do, and two states -- Alaska and Kansas -- never sealed these documents, as most of the nation did in the last century. Guess what calamitous fallout there has been in these states.
Will some people face difficult or unexpected situations, or even get hurt, as a result of extending this right from coast to coast? Almost certainly, but we know from research, experience and official statistics (in the above states) that the numbers of those adversely affected will be tiny -- and we should do all we can for them by taking steps such as providing public notice, offering counseling, and giving women who placed their children for adoption the ability to officially declare if they do not want to be contacted.
Is this issue as important as women's rights or civil rights or disability rights or gay rights? Maybe or maybe not, but it's not a contest to see which group should get rights and which should not. Besides, this much is certain: Every additional day, month and year that original birth certificates remain sealed, some more adoptees and birth parents who want or need to find each other will give up instead, and some more will die, without ever filling the hole in their hearts.
So it sure does feel important to the people who are deprived. And if we understand that it's about equality and social justice for another group of Americans -- 7 million of them -- maybe we'll feel it, too.
Adam Pertman is Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of "Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming Our Families - and America," which is scheduled for release in April and has been reviewed as "the most important book ever published on the subject."