Absurd Dilemmas Caused by Secrets in Closed Adoptions

11/30/2010 04:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How angry would you be if the government had personal information about you -- but wouldn't let you see it? Many adult adoptees can relate to this experience -- forty states still withhold their original birth certificates from them. The secrets inherent in closed adoptions can create a lifetime of frustration and feelings of being second-class citizens -- and can also create absurd dilemmas.

Gay Ellen Brown is a 51-year-old Illinois adoptee who was raised in New Jersey. In 2009, she was diagnosed with several pre-cancerous breast lesions. After these were surgically removed, her doctor requested she have a BRCA DNA test to see if she carried the gene for breast and ovarian cancer. If she did carry the gene, it would guide many decisions about her future treatment and would be important for her children and grandchildren to know.

But Gay Ellen's insurance company refused to pay for the test, citing a company policy that only allowed coverage if there was a demonstrated family history of breast or ovarian cancer. Since Gay Ellen had no way of knowing her family's medical background, she could not prove the need for the genetic analysis. The BRCA test cost over $3,000, and Gay Ellen was unable to personally afford it.

"It's always in the back of my mind," she says. "Am I carrying this gene? I have three daughters and a granddaughter. What about them? The insurance company knows I'm adopted but it makes no difference."

As a last resort, Gay Ellen petitioned the court in Illinois where she was adopted to release her records. The judge denied her request. He indicated he might be more willing if she had stage four cancer or needed a transplant.

"Why should I have to wait until I have stage four cancer?" Gay Ellen asks. "If I had the BRCA test and learned I had the gene, my daughters would be able to have earlier mammography screening. Should the fact that I was adopted be something that dooms my own kids?"

The debate about whether adoptees should have access to their own birth certificate has been ongoing in many states, most notably in New Jersey where it has been a legislative issue for over thirty years. Birth parent privacy is the central argument from those who oppose access. Groups from churches, bar associations, and even the ACLU have argued that birthmothers were promised confidentiality. Yet there is no statutory guarantee of privacy nor is there evidence that birthmothers as a whole seek anonymity from the child they bore.

An examination of the outcomes of access legislation in the states where sealed records laws have been reversed suggests that while birthmothers desired privacy from their neighbors and communities and even families, most do not seek privacy from the adult son or daughter they bore. Oregon, New Hampshire and Maine allow birthparents to file 'no consent' forms where they can stipulate their desires regarding contact. The number of birthparents who file such documents is infinitesimal. For example, in New Hampshire, where adoptees have had access since 2005, with over 24,000 sealed records on file only 12 birthparents have requested 'no contact'.

Birthmothers have become pawns in the New Jersey debate, with opposition groups saying they are speaking for them. Birthparents who have testified have all supported the bill. There certainly are birthparents who want and need privacy -- and the New Jersey bill allows them to have their names removed from the birth certificate. The bill would actually empower NJ birthmothers for the very first time by giving them an opportunity to privately communicate their wishes with their son or daughter.

As Elizabeth Cooper Allen, an adoptee has said, "It would be far better to hear that I can't have my original birth certificate from the woman who gave birth to me, rather than from a state clerk. This matter is between me and the family I came from. It's not for the state of New Jersey to decide this for us."

At the heart of the debate is the lifelong effect the secrets of closed adoption impose upon adopted citizens. Gay Ellen Brown may soon have some of the answers she seeks. In May of this year, Illinois passed a complicated adoption reform bill which will allow her to apply for her original birth certificate on November 15, 2011, exactly a year from now. As long as her birthmother or birthfather haven't chosen to remain anonymous, Gay Ellen may finally be able to contact her family of origin, and learn about her family's medical history. All she has to do is live long enough...

Jean Strauss is an author and filmmaker from Washington state. Her feature film, ADOPTED: for the life of me, illuminates the impact lifelong secrecy has on adoptees, and encourages a discussion on the issue of access to information. The film will be airing on public television stations this fall and winter.