The Supreme Court's ruling supporting Oregon's law allowing adult adoptees access to their birth records may have serious consequences for the future of adoption of American-born children.
For decades, the prevailing practice in adoption has been to assure women who wanted to relinquish their newborn infants that, if they did so, their anonymity would be preserved.
This promise of anonymity was also given to pregnant women contemplating adoption of their as-yet unborn. Their records would be sealed. At the time, many of these women were either teen-agers or adults, confused and in great distress. They agreed to have their children adopted (at times rather than seek abortion of a fetus) on the clear promise that their identity would never be revealed to their surrendered children.
Yes, these children would know they were adopted. They also would correctly be told that their birth mothers (and sometimes even fathers) surrendered them as acts of love. In exchange for this selfless act, identities were to remain unknown.
What the Supreme Court's decision does in reversing the historic granting of anonymity is to violate solemn promises given by sanctioned authorities. The ruling eliminates a long-held practice which allowed countless numbers of children to be adopted and reared in loving families.
Recently, two significant statutes were enacted -- the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) and the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). Both support and encourage adoption over foster care and abortion.
ASFA's intent is to prevent children from entering foster care or move children out of foster care, either returning them to now rehabilitated families or deem them available for adoption. MEPA particularly impacts the over representation of non-white children in foster care.
The court's decision to allow adoptees access to their birth mother's identities will complicate an already tenuous situation, especially for adoptable children in foster care. Most recent figures (1996) indicate nearly 52,000 children in foster care are available for adoption, half of whom are African-American, most over the age of a year. About 74,000 more children in foster care have a goal of adoption.
With the advent of the "right to know," adult adoptees now want pertinent "who am I" information such as what inherited diseases might I carry, what is my ethnic, religious and cultural background, who is my father, do I have siblings? No one can deny these are legitimate demands, but at what cost? And, what of the birth mother's rights?
What of the solemn promises given to women at times of their lives when they were most vulnerable, promises which were in all likelihood critical in their decision to either surrender the child or perhaps not go through with an abortion? These women now might have families who know nothing of this part of their past, husbands and children who were never told about the surrendered child. Is society to say, "Sorry, we've changed the rules. The fact that you chose not to reveal what you did is your problem!"
An unknown portion of parents weighing the pros and cons of domestic versus foreign adoption (known as inter-country adoption) may now choose to adopt abroad, thereby for the most part simply avoiding the open-records issue.
In my research on inter-country adoption, when parents were asked why they chose to adopt a foreign-born child rather than an American-born, among several responses one went something like, "I won't have to deal with birth parents."
It is, therefore, not a far-fetched consequence that adoption rates for U.S.-born children will fall as a result of the court's decision. The largely misperceived threat felt by some adoptive families that adult adoptees will locate their birth mothers and perhaps form a bond threatening the adoptive parents' relationship is just about non-existent with an inter-country adoption.
Most inter-country adoptees were either abandoned, allowing for no background information, or identifying demographics are too sparse to provide sufficient information.
Adoption under the best of circumstances is a highly emotionally charged, complex issue. The Supreme Court's decision has just made it more complex.
Howard Altstein is a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Social Work in Baltimore.