Sealed Adoption Records from an Adoptee’s View

Recently there was an editorial piece about the need for open records for all adoptees in the state of Iowa. The piece went on to describe the current system that is in place for adult adoptees who wish to access their original birth certificates, or medical information, and pronounced it a hit and miss hodgepodge that really didn’t allow people easy access to the same information non-adopted have unfettered access to.

Interestingly here in Canada, the provincial government of Ontario was forced by the courts to rework a law which would have opened up adoption records for all adoptees, past and present. The law in its original form was retroactive to sealed adoptions even and caused quite an uproar among those who believe birth parents have rights that supersede those of the now adult children they relinquished.

I find the debate interesting from a personal standpoint as I was adopted as an infant almost 44 years ago now in in Iowa. The agency that handled my adoption, Catholic Charities, has long had a policy of supplying non-identifying information and medical histories, if the information exists, to adult adoptees.

As I result, I know quite a bit about my birth parents who were in their later teens when I was born. I know I am of Swedish/Irish extraction and my birth mother was a classic blue-eyed, strawberry blond Irish Catholic girl. I know that both my parents came from broken homes, hardly the norm in 1963.

According to the information in my file, there were no known medical conditions I need to worry about, but since we are talking about an era when medical histories were not really deemed as important as they are today, I am not certain I trust this particular revelation. I can tell you the height and weight of both my birth parents. Their religions of record. The number of siblings each had. My birth father worked at a gas station. My birth mother was anxious I should be in a home before Christmas.

Still, for all I do know, I don’t know who these two people are, and if it is from them I inherited my athletic ability or my gift for writing? Is it her or him that I look like or like my own daughter, am I an even mix?

People who grew up in biological families can’t know how it is to be related to no one. To look in the mirror and not see anyone but yourself. Until the birth of my own child, there wasn’t a soul on the planet who I shared genetic ties with that I personally knew.

I am not an advocate of the red-neck position that is prevalent these days that biological ties are all. I can recall far too many conversations with my students in various Des Moines schools about “how awful people must be to give away their flesh and blood”. Perhaps this new  (if it is really) attitude accounts for the decreasing numbers of babies available for adoption and the increasing number of unprepared teens raising babies, who will likely fare no better in life than their own parents did.

Do I have a right to my original birth certificate? Yes, I do. I am an adult, and I should have the same right to that piece of paper as any other adult in the state of Iowa or elsewhere.

The contract (because that is what an adoption is) that was brokered (because that is what adoption agencies and lawyers do) between my birth parents and my parents was between them. As an infant, my opinion and rights weren’t an issue, but I am not an infant now.

Birth parents, and some adoptees, will tout privacy issues as the main reason for keeping records, especially older ones, sealed. That’s not a good enough reason. There are consequences and responsibilities that go along with bringing a life into this world, signing and sealing adoption papers doesn’t relieve birth parents of that no matter what they were told or still believe. They have an obligation to the children they created, and this includes providing information to their birth children about who they are, where they came from and, of course, medical information which can change drastically from one’s teens to one’s middle age or later. As an example, my first husband died as a result of an inherited metabolic disease no one in his family even knew they carried until he got sick. A medical history is on-going and not the finite thing that adoption agencies would have us believe.

One of my younger sisters searched out her birth parents and found a mother who she is still in touch with though her birth father rejected her utterly. Her search was time consuming and in the end turned out to be a mixed bag though she did discover some health information that was not included in her original adoption files.

Personally, I have no interest in knowing my birth parents* on anything other than paper. I am curious to know the circumstances surrounding my conception naturally and what they might look like. I would like to know that they are in continued good health and that no illnesses that I should worry about cropped up as they aged. I would like to know how I got the awful name of Yvette. Was I named for the actress? Or was it a family thing? But beyond that, I have a family who might not be perfect but are broken in and comfortable to me.

*Edit – rereading this in 2020, after finding my birth mother’s family, has been interesting. I convinced myself over the course of my life that knowing her and where I came from didn’t matter but for the health history and I realize now this view was just a way of protecting myself from rejection.

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