Opponents of Pennsylvania Adoption Bill Make Strange Bedfellows

An adoption-related bill proposed in the Pennsylvania legislature has made for what some adoption rights activists see as strange bedfellows, between traditional civil and reproductive rights groups and anti-choice Catholic groups, both opposing a lawmaker’s proposal to give adult adoptees easier access to their original birth certificates.

At a state senate hearing Tuesday morning, bill sponsor Kerry Benninghoff described HB 162 as being “more about adoptees’ need to know than their desire to know” the names of their original, or birth, parents. Currently, adult adoptees in Pennsylvania can go through a judicial intermediary process to obtain their original birth certificates—but only if their original parents have consented to the release of their own identities on those documents.

HB 162 would allow adoptees to obtain their original birth records without going through an intermediary, and to discover the names and ages of their original parents.

Adoption rights advocates support the bill because they say it would afford adult adoptees the same basic rights to their identifying information that non-adopted people have.

“The sealed original birth certificate policy is from patriarchy, and from shame directed at women who had children as single mothers,” Philadelphia-area adoptee rights advocate Amanda Transue-Woolston told RH Reality Check. An adult adoptee who has reunited with her biological mother, Transue-Woolston said she wants “adoptees to be treated just like everyone else.”

“As someone who is adopted, everybody has access to the birth records they were born with in the United States, regardless of their family circumstances, except if they’re adopted,” said Transue-Woolston. “Which says that I have something to be ashamed about.”

But the bill’s opponents include at least two groups that are more often seen sparring than sharing: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

At the ACLU, legislative director Andy Hoover told RH Reality Check that his organization’s concern is primarily about consent and privacy, saying that their stance is “consistent with the idea that women should have privacy and confidentiality in their reproductive health choices if they so choose.”

“Any reasonable person can understand that this is emotionally challenging for adoptees,” said Hoover. “But what the supporters are asking for with this bill is to fulfill their emotional needs by sacrificing someone else’s privacy and that person’s emotional well-being.”

The bill’s Catholic opponents also say original parents’ right to privacy is important, but a representative from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) told the senate committee this week that opening adoption records could potentially lead to an increase in abortions, arguing that pregnant people would choose to abort a pregnancy rather than relinquish a child for adoption if they feared being identified later on.

“Common sense tells us that a woman faced with the difficult decision of whether to place her child for adoption might also be more easily inclined to consider aborting the child if her desire to have her identity remain private was not protected,” testified the PCC’s Francis Viglietta.

According to the American Adoption Congress, data available in the small handful of states that have open access to original birth certificates does not suggest that such access increases abortion.

Pennsylvania adoption law has been closely tied to abortion regulations and the anti-choice community for decades. While original birth certificates were available to adoptees beginning in 1925, it was in 1985 that state Rep. Stephen Freind’s then-proposed bill successfully sealed the records. Freind also proposed and passed legislation—later struck down—that would have required married women to inform their husbands of an abortion in addition to placing a 24-hour waiting period on the procedures, in an attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade. Later, in 1988, Freind was quoted as saying that it is “almost but not quite impossible to become pregnant on the basis of rape,” a precursor to Missouri lawmaker Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments.

Because of the sealed records’ association with anti-choice politics and specifically with Rep. Freind, Amanda Transue-Woolston said she’s especially dismayed at the ACLU’s position on HB 162, though perhaps not surprised at the PCC’s.

As a person who was conceived from rape, she said it’s especially important to her to fight stigma on all fronts.

“I am not what my biological father did,” said Transue-Woolston. She said she believes that sealed birth certificates assign adoptees and original parents lifelong roles that are difficult to escape: “The adoptee is a perpetual child. But I’m a woman, too, and you need to advocate for my rights just as much as anyone else’s.”

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  • lioness

    Evidence shows that most birth mothers want the records unsealed, and many campaign to overturn such laws.

  • PixieCorpse

    Joanne, your comment is brilliant. The ACLU’s stance on open records renders me incoherent with rage, but not you.

    • Arekushieru

      I’ve disagreed with the ACLU’s stance on several subjects. This, now, becomes one of three, the other two being: 1) their stance on bullying and 2) their stance on the rights of people who have been unknowingly infected with HIV/Aids by their knowing partner.

  • Arekushieru

    Also, surrogates, mitochondrial donors, egg and sperm donors, etc certificates should be made and kept unsealed.

  • PriscillaSharp

    I am a mother who lost a child to adoption in 1964 and I firmly believe adult adoptees should be entitled to their original birth certificates. We are very passionate about this issue, as Rep. Benninghoff so poignantly testified. We believe very strongly that this is basically a human rights issue – that adoptees who were born in PA have a right to the true facts documenting their birth, just like every other person who was not adopted; that it is not the place of government or private agencies or individuals to interpose themselves into people’s personal lives and try to control or manipulate, and certainly not to exploit them for extra fees, that they would not dare to do if the person was not adopted. This is an intensely personal matter for adult citizens that should never have been made part of government policy or private domain (adoption agencies and lawyers). It is blatant discrimination and must be made right. We hope the PA Senate will follow the House vote and recognize that this injustice and inequality can be remedied immediately with passage of HB162. We have the history and experiences of other states that have passed similar laws to guide us. Look to OR, AL, ME, NH, RI, IL, TN, and most recently OH. We hope and pray PA will be the next state to step out of the dark ages of state-imposed discrimination and oppression.

  • Amanda

    Thanks so much for writing about this important bill.

    I am sad to hear that there is opposition to this bill, not simply because they oppose, but because of what they say when they oppose. “It’s common sense” and “Any reasonable person can understand…” are not evaluative policy frameworks. Expecting others to agree–particularly in the absence of data to justify a policy position–has a lot to do with privilege. The leaders of these two opposing groups as men occupy highly privileged places in society which further intensifies the problematic nature of their speaking on behalf of women.

    When my children access their birth records, no one will say it is a violation of my reproductive rights because my children are not adopted. Only are adopted people told that we violate our mothers choice and reproductive rights when we seek a document all other citizens are unquestionably granted. We as adoptees are overtly compared to abortion–an argument highly suggestive to our community that we are not fully human. I regret that, in 2014, these messages about adoptees and mothers are ones some still seek to perpetuate.