"Why would they lie?" I thought to myself when I first saw my amended birth certificate. I was 11 or 12 and it was out on the kitchen counter for some reason I don't recall. I was alone in the room at the time, wondering if I was allowed to look at the document. I didn't know my first mother's name, no one had ever told me before. So I wondered, am I allowed to know? Feeling very brave and rebellious, I took a peek only to be taken aback that it did not contain my first mother's name at all. There it was, "certificate of live birth" from the state of Tennessee with my birth date, my name, my place of birth....yet my adoptive parents were listed in place of my first mother's name. I couldn't believe it. I vaguely remember asking my mom why she and my father were on my birth certificate and received a "we're your parents" sort of response and feeling like my question had not quite been answered.
Many thoughts went through my mind. "Did the State save her name before they took it off?" "Has my choice to one day know her name been taken away from me? Why couldn't someone have asked what I wanted?" "Why would you put wrong information about my birth on my birth certificate?" "Is there something wrong with where I come from that it has to be hidden like that?" Of course, I had no concept of what an original was, that it was sealed, and that this wasn't really my factual birth document. I didn't learn about that until my early 20's . My sense of injustice from seeing this "birth certificate" was not about me weighing in on who my "real parents" are. Rather, I felt a conflict between the lesson of the truth being important when there were exceptions to the rule. But what, however, was it about adoption that there was an exception to telling and knowing the truth?
What Birth Certificates Are
When a child is born, the State government collects and keeps vital statistics information. It makes various pieces of this information available to the person who was born in the form of a birth certificate. Birth certificates are government recorded and issued documents that contain the vital statistics information collected at the time of the persons' birth.
In my journey in Adoptee Rights activism, I have encountered several points others will make in defense to the practice of amending and even sealing of a birth certificate. Some say that it is easier to have one amended certificate with the adoptive parents names on it. Some say that amending and sealing is necessary so that no one will have to know that someone is adopted unless the family or the adopted person decide to disclose it to others.
Some say that the amended certificate isn't untruthful at all. Despite the fact that it says "certificate of live birth" and contains birth information, they argue that the "mother" and "father" spots on the birth certificate containing the adoptive parents names is understandable because they are mother and father. They'll point out that the birth certificate does not specifically state "mother who gave birth" or "father who fathered the child." Some other will simply flat out state that there should be a new birth certificate made with the adoptive parents' names on it because they're the real parents. They are the ones who did all the hard work, and they deserve the acknowledgement of being on an amended certificate.
Some might also point out that birth and biology are no longer synonymous because of surrogacy and donor conception. They'll claim this means that adoptees cannot claim a right to know biology and birth information through their birth certificates.
Here's the Truth
It certainly is not easier for many adopted persons in adulthood to have an amended certificate and not their original--just ask those who cannot get passports and driver's licenses, to name just a few complications. Also, want to compare your amended to the original to verify that you know correct information about yourself? Want to know your first parents' names? Tough cookies. Adoptees in 44 States have a great deal of difficulty doing so.
Birth certificates are not "hide your family drama" certificates. They are birth certificates. During his childhood, my father had no amended birth certificate to hide that his mother did not raise him or his brother since the ages of one and two. My grandfather could not have amended his birth certificate to hide that his mother sent him to live at a boarding school for "fatherless boys" after his dad died while keeping his brother. Foster kids do not have their birth certificates amended and sealed to hide that they are not being raised by their first parents. No one else, regardless of the situation, has their birth certificate amended and sealed. Adoption should be no exception. When there is a different rule for adoption, we assert that there is something inherently wrong with being adopted.
What are "mother" and "father" are intended to indicate on a birth certificate? I think that the fact that the document is recorded and kept by the Vital Statistics office and that it contains all information pertaining to birth, "mother" and "father" generally speaking on anything claiming to be a "birth certificate" are clearly intending to indicate the mother who gave birth and the biological father. Specifications of "mother who gave birth" and "biological father" on a birth certificate would be completely superfluous.
What would perhaps be ideal in the place of amending and sealing is for original birth certificates to be amended to include the names of legal parents, without any other information removed or changed. A redacted copy could be requested for identification purposes containing whatever specific information the adoptee requesting it saw fit. However, this is not what the current amended certificate of each adoptee is. It is a document that presents itself as the original and in place of the original in every single way and that is why it is untruthful. It does not indicate that it is not the original or that information on it has been changed to include information other than birth information so that I can be aware and informed that I do not have the same birth certificate others do. There is nothing on it that indicates to me that I am adopted. When I request a birth certificate from Vital Statistics, they don't address me as an adopted person and ask me "which one?" They send me the amended one and only the amended one. Should my parents had chosen not to disclose to me that I am adopted, I would recieve no knowledge or hints by looking at my amended birth certificate. It in every way shape and form presents my adoptive parents as being the parents who gave birth to me. Very simply put, it is a lie. It is my government lying to me. It allows others to lie to me if they wanted to. It robs me of the basic human right to truth, identity, self-determination, and autonomy.
What Wanting Truth is all About
Not being on my birth certificate does not mean my parents are not my parents. It has nothing to do with that. I love my mom and dad. It needs to be acknowledged that all of the parents in my life are real; if this were not so, I would not be a real person. I would not exist. If I choose to favor some people in my life more than others or apply some sort of heirarchy, that is my choice and not something anyone else or the state has the right to do for me.
Remember, we're talking about birth certificates here, not "I'm the real parent" certificates. Adoptees deserve the same birth documentation all others get. Period. This issue shouldn't be made to be about anyone or anything else or any about any other issue. My birth, my record, my right. The idea that birth documents are to be altered to show which family the adoptee belongs to more or which family is more entitled to claim the adoptee is perhaps the most offensive view of all. Adoptees are people, not property.
As for surrogacy and donor conception, a birth document lacking biological and birth information is also unethical. It is not a justification for the way adoptees' birth certificates are changed. We cannot argue against adoptee rights or for the practice of amending and sealing based on what rights that have been stripped off the backs of other groups. Since birth and biological information is what is contained on birth certificates for most people, birth certificates for other individuals such as those carried by surrogate mothers and those who were donor conceived should provide all pertinent issue about birth, biology, and parentage as well. Other countries get this right or are working on it. I will get to that later.
My Birth Certificate as an Example
My "birth certificate" isn't even all that bad as compared to those of other adoptees (and some have no birth certificate of any kind at all). The "birth certificates" of many other adoptees out there have been found to contain incorrect information such as anything from the wrong race (race changed to the adoptive parents race), to the wrong birth place (claiming the adoptee was born where the adoptive parents live), to the wrong birth date. I am fortunate to have had little discrepancy from one document to the other. There is actually more lies on my birth certificate than just the fact that it presents my adoptive parents as though they gave birth to me. Further editing on my amended birth certificate has tried to hide that it is lying.
In plain print, my amended certificate claims to be the true and original document on file with the Vital Statistics office. As someone who has been granted the legal privilege of accessing not only my uncensored adoption file as well as access to my original birth certificate (and my hospital long-form), I can tell you that this is not true. My amended birth certificate is not the true and original document on file.
My amended certificate also contains a filing date that is dated one month after my birth. Yes, the birth certificate with my parents names along with my adopted name on it claims to have been filed in June (I was born in May). This is odd because my adoptive parents did not even meet me until October. I did not legally carry the name "Amanda," the name listed on my birth certificate, until January of the following year. Yet my amended certificate claims to be filed a month after my birth, before any of the information on it happened? There must have been a time machine or a psychic in the Vital Statistics office. The fact of the matter is, my original birth certificate was likely the document filed in June. Making the filing date closer to the date of birth on the amended certificate simply serves to make it appear as though it is an original document. Very simply; it's a lie.
My Identity Denied, Her Motherhood Erased
My first mother, who did not know about amending and sealing, was shocked I didn't know her name. It was hard for me to have to tell her "my parents names took the place of your name and the certificate with your name on it was sealed." It was when I had to explain this whole process to my first mother, a real person with real feelings who is proud of all of her descendants, that I realized just how disrespectful amending and sealing is--and not just to me as the adopted person.
Truth be told, amending and sealing is completely disrespectful to my adoptive parents as well. If we have really come to a place in society where we accept adoptive families and other non-traditionally formed families as equal then why do we need a process and a birth certificate for adoptees that hides the fact that they were adopted? If biological birth is not the only legitimate way of becoming a parent then we do not need a certificate that makes it look as though the adoptive parents are the biological parents. Adoptive parents love their children; they are perfectly capable of accepting a child for who they are without denying or changing parts of the child's identity and history.
The History of Amending and Sealing Shows why it Needs to Stop
Georgia Tann was the first adoption worker to convince the Tennessee Vital Statistics Office to amend and seal the birth certificates for her adoptions. Tann's adoptions were illegal; all 5,000 of them. She pushed for the anonymity of the adoptee and of the adoptive parents by issuing the adopted person a new birth certificate, claiming it would protect the adoptive family from interference from the original family as well as protect the adopted person from the stigma of their impoverished and illegitimate origins by making it appear as though the child had been born to married parents. In actuality, she was trying to leave as little recourse as possible for original families to find and reclaim their children who had been unlawfully removed by Tann. Tann's goal was to handle adoptions across the United States and her push for policies of secrecy spread far and wide. Alabama was first to make amending and sealing and official act of the state for all its adoptions (it is now an open access state). Tan's stomping ground, Tennessee, was second (Tennessee is now an open access state for adoptees of Tann's era and conditional open access state for those born after Tann's era). The practice of sealing Original Birth Certificates spread to all the States but two, Alaska and Kansas.
Birth records were amended and sealed in those 48 states based on ideas on the shame of adoption, the stigma of illegitimacy, and the attempt to hide the adoptive family from the very socially scorned original mother. We should be past this shame and stigma and the need for such measures. Unfortunately, these laws are still on the books. The sealed OBC law in New York, for example, is nearing its 80th birthday. This law was no doubt influenced by Tann herself as the governor who signed it into law adopted two children from her.
The origins of amending and sealing are steeped in shame and stigma and horrendously unethical practices. In my opinion, the modern day justifications not only fall short but do not erase how sincerely offensive it is to me to have amended and sealed birth certificates that were not designed for my ease and comfort, but to hide who I am and where I come from, because it isn't good enough by society's standards.
Rejection of Difference
H. David Kirk, in his book "Shared Fate," hypothesized that rejecting difference or the "rejection of difference" model, as he calls it, is a coping mechanism in adoption that is employed to deal with differences between biological and adoptive families. Adoption policy, up until recent decades, has sought the validation and the legitimization of the adoptive family by trying to make it appear as close as possible to biology. This means people were often matched with children based on similarity in appearance. Kirk hypothesized that couples adopting a baby which each new adopted child younger than the previous sibling is done to simulate how children enter a biological family and follow birth order in a biological family. Amending an adoptee's birth certificate is a prime example that he used as being a part of the "rejection of difference" in adoption as it puts the adoptive parents on a birth certificate in the same way biological parents appear on their childrens' birth certificates. We adoptees are legally equal children and equal heirs in our families because we are compared to biology as the law says we are "as if born to." I am not equal on my own; I am "equal to" based on the biological ties others have to their families.
There are many differences between adoptive families and biological families. Rejecting that fact doesn't make the differences go away. In fact, ignoring of being "blind" to differences adoption brings indicates that society still thinks there is something wrong with adoptive families and adoptees as perhaps might have been thought fifty years ago. Denying difference denies the reality of the adopted person. What is there that denies difference more than to alter a birth certificate in this way as if the first chapter of an adoptee's life never existed?
Additional Resulting Problems
The resulting problem, as BJ Lifton so eloquently states in her books (see "Lost and Found" and "Journey of the Adopted Self"), is that practices in adoption that involve secrecy and lack of access to information have had a silencing effect on mothers and adopted persons. As University of Baltimore Professor, Elizabeth Samuels, has written, the same has contributed to the formation of adoption stereotypes, misinformation, and assumptions (see "Families by Law: an Adoption Reader"). As Barbara Bisantz Raymond laid out in her historical account of Tann's impact on adoption policy, (see "The Baby Thief") how can ethical adoption practice be ensured when it lacks transparency so that ethics can be clearly seen and proven? Is lying ethical?
The bottom line for me is that it is just plain invalidating and insulting to be a grown adult and be lied to. Not only does the amended birth certificate present a lie but it allows adoptees to continue to be lied to about being adopted altogether. Yes, this still happens in this day and age. Just a few days ago, I had a friend who recently found out I am adopted, inquire if I was a Late Discovery Adoptee (abbreviated "LDA," and no, I'm not one) and ask me numerous questions about LDAs and about being adopted in general. Why? Because she has a friend who hasn't told her daughter she is adopted yet.
Every single person on this planet has the right to know the DNA they carry, the access to truth, to maintain and form their own identity how they please, and to be incontrol of their own narrative at all times. To seal pre-adoption information is not only to treat adoptees differently than the non-adopted, it is to take the story of an adoptee's life, rip out the first chapter, as if their narrative does not even belong to them. For adoptees who haven't been told they are adopted, they may be giving their physicians false family medical information and using it to make health care decisions. So much self-determineaiton, adulthood, respect, and autonomy is taken from adoptees by the way our birth records are treated. I suppose the state cannot help what adoptees are or are not told by others in their lives. However, the state is the one who amends and seals the records; the state should never take part in deceiving its citizens.
We Can do Better
We really can do better. There is a way to provide both adoptees, donor conceived persons, and those born to surrogate mothers with as much information as the average biologically-raised/non-adopted person gets when requesting a birth certificate. There is no need for amending and sealing of birth documents for the adopted. I think Australia gets the closest to having this right. Court records, birth certificates, and adoption files are all made available to adult adoptees. Birth certificates contain both birth and adoptive information. A person who does not want to share the entire contents of their birth certificate can choose to request a redacted copy. As for donor conception, New Zealand is an example of one country the United States could learn from in terms of birth certificates as biological, birth, and parentage information is all contained on the birth certificate. The United Kingdom, which has outlawed anonymous egg/sperm donation, is considering similar reforms (and already also allows adopted persons to receive their original birth certificates upon reaching the age of majority). We can do better too; we really can. We can do better than handing certificates to people with information that is not correct and expecting them not to feel slighted. We can do better than that.
In addition to works mentioned in this entry, also see works by Dr. Katrina Wegar and Dr. E. Wayne Carp