An American without a Heritage:
The Plight of the American Adoptee
"The idea of an American without a heritage is simply un-American.
This is the plight of millions of American adoptees—and it should not be!"
I was born in New York State, a state that until January 15, 2020, sealed and forever withheld the original birth certificates (OBCs) and by extension, the true identities of American adult adoptees. This was a travesty of justice that is still perpetuated in forty of the fifty states, and the District of Columbia. Thankfully, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Adoptee Rights Bill into law. Thank you, Governor! I hope leaders in the states that still withhold adoptees’ birthrights will follow suit.
As you know from my story, I spent decades attempting to learn the truth of my identity and those of my families of origin and railing against the oppressive New York State laws that withheld my heritage (my birthright), from me.
In many ways, mine is the story of millions of other American adult adoptees who continue to endure the plight of having been born and adopted in states whose governments withholds our OBCs, while the majority of American citizens (predominantly nonadopted persons) enjoy unrestricted access to their OBCs.
Nonadopted adult citizens may request their OBCs from their state’s vital statistics office, pay a fee, and receive them. The vast majority of adopted adults who request their OBCs receive the following response: Access Denied.
No American citizen should endure discrimination by his or her own state government, whose sworn duty it is to protect and defend the rights and privileges of its citizens equally, merely because he or she was adopted as an infant. Unrestricted access to the OBC is the right of all other (nonadopted) adult American citizens—and it’s our birthright, too.
How can the US government stand aside and allow states to pass laws that strip American citizens of their human, civil, and constitutional rights and falsify birth records? It’s been happening to American adoptees since the 1930s and it should not, as this practice is in direct conflict with our values as a nation. It needs to stop.
The widely accepted account of when American adoptions became cloaked in secrecy goes something like this. Early in the twentieth century, starting with Minnesota in 1917, states began moving toward protecting the privacy of participants in the adoption process by closing court records to public inspection. Then, in the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, virtually all states took the further step of imposing a regime of secrecy under which adopting parents and birth parents who were unknown to one another would remain unknown and adult adoptees could never learn the identity of their birth parents. While a few states closed original birth records to adult adoptees at approximately the same time they closed adoption records to the other parties, most states proceeded much more slowly with respect to adult adoptees’ access to birth records. In fact, as late as 1960, some 40 percent of the states still had laws on the books recognizing the unrestricted right of adult adoptees to inspect their original birth certificates. It was only in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that all but three of those states changed their laws to close birth records to adoptees. At the same time, a growing national advocacy movement, the Adoption Reform Movement, was pushing for greater openness in adoption by encouraging many states to establish passive and active registries through which adult adoptees and birth parents could attempt to seek information about and establish contact with one another.
Alaska and Kansas are the only two states that have never sealed and withheld the OBCs of adoptees. The only states today that provide adult adoptees with unrestricted access to their OBCs (no vetoes, redactions, restrictions, or “partial access” for some born between certain years and not others) are Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island.
Sealing and withholding OBCs from adult adoptees is blatantly discriminatory and an egregious violation of our basic human rights, as well as our civil and constitutional rights as American citizens. This practice disgraces us as a nation, particularly because we pride ourselves on being the worldwide beacon of freedom, justice, equal rights, and democracy.
Our credibility is further compromised by the fact that out of 193 member states of the United Nations, we are one of only two states that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The remaining one, Somalia, is a Third World country. The UNCRC is the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history. The United States signed the Convention, indicating its intention to ratify, but has not.
When correctly implemented, the UNCRC gives children the right to know and have access to their original families and the official record of who they are.
It’s time to restore the rights of American adult adoptees and thus, restore the United States to the status of the true role model for other nations that we pride ourselves to be. We talk the talk, however our credibility as a nation ultimately rests on walking the walk.
The overwhelming majority of our state governments place adoptees’ OBCs under court seal and allow them to be rewritten as if the child had been naturally born to the adoptive parents. The rewritten certificate is called an amended birth certificate.
A birth certificate is a vital record that documents the birth of a child. The term birth certificate can refer to either the original document certifying the circumstances of the birth or to a certified copy or representation of the ensuing registration of that birth. Depending on the jurisdiction, a record of birth might or might not contain verification of the event by a midwife or doctor.
Accordingly, an amended birth certificate is a falsified document that changes the facts of the live birth event and replaces the names of the child’s birth parents with the names of his or her adoptive parents. In essence, this is legalized identity theft.
The original purpose of amending adoptees’ OBCs was to provide privacy and protect the minor adoptee from the stigma of illegitimacy. Consider the absurdity of a protection that strips Americans of their rights so that others may think more favorably of them. Adults require no such protection, nor do adoptees of any age today, as societal norms have changed considerably regarding what constitutes “the average American family.”
As of 2012, the median percentage of children born outside marriage ranges from 66 percent in Latin America to 5 percent in East Asia. In the United States and the European Union, that figure is 40 percent. The illegitimacy rate in Western societies is 1 percent to 2 percent higher if we count children who were ostensibly born to couples but were in fact covertly conceived by a different biological father.
The term illegitimate, when referring to the birth (or existence) of any human being, must change. Adoptees are legitimate human beings and American citizens, despite the fact that our birth parents weren’t married to each other when we were born. Further, we need to stop referring to adult adoptees as adopted children, as doing so perpetually infantilizes us in the eyes of the law. All other adults enjoy unrestricted access to their own original birth information and so should adult adoptees.
Frankly, it’s insulting, as what occurred in our infancy does not and should not define us for the rest of our lives. We are emancipated American adults who were adopted as infants. There is a big difference between the rights, responsibilities, and accountabilities of adults versus those of minor children. We demand (though we shouldn’t have to) equal rights and equal protection under the law as promised in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States of America, and the Bill of Rights. We demand “liberty and justice for all.”
In the forty-plus years since 1975, only ten states have fully restored the rights of adult adoptees. The fact that some adult adoptees have unrestricted access to their own information, while others do not, and the fact that the majority of adoptees are treated differently under the law than nonadoptees creates what is referred to as a special class of citizens who are actively being discriminated against.
While adoptees argue that placing our birth records under permanent seal and forever withholding the truth of our parentage from us is unconstitutional, others are of the opinion that those restrictions are not unconstitutional. The latter underscore their point by splitting hairs over language in the Declaration of Independence, the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, arguing that adoptees are not provided for (or even referenced) in those documents, and that protections set out in those documents does not apply to adoptees or adoption.
I disagree on both counts. We are American citizens, regardless of the marital status of our birth parents at the time we were born. Further, the organized system of adoption as we know it today did not exist in the late 1700s and therefore, adoption was an unforeseen contingency. I contend that our Founding Fathers would declare, “Yes, adult adoptees are American citizens and thus entitled to the same rights and privileges, under the law, as all other Americans.”
This was the unanimous opinion of America’s state legislators prior to 1917, when Minnesota became the first state to pass an adoption sealed-records law.
Another point is entirely more difficult to refute: any way you slice it, the idea of an American without a heritage is simply un-American! This is the plight of millions of American adoptees—and it should not be!
Our Founding Fathers, like my cousins the former US presidents John Adams (Alden descendant, Mayflower) and Thomas Jefferson (Hopkins descendant, Mayflower), are likely rolling in their graves over the fact that many officials in power at the state level today are actively and willfully denying adult adoptees (some of whom are the Founding Father’s own descendants) equal rights and protection under the law, either in part or in full, claiming to “protect us” from our “illegitimacy.” I believe our Founding Fathers would discredit such officials as illegitimate, as The Declaration of Independence states:
Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. [Boldface type is the author’s.]
Any form of government most certainly includes state governments.
The Founding Fathers instructed that when our laws and/or those who govern us strip us of the rights they are sworn to protect and defend, that it is our right, our duty to abolish those laws and install new guards who will protect and defend our rights, to ensure our future security.
The most memorable of our American presidents—the ones whose names continue to cross our lips years after they served—have been presidents who advocated in word and deed on behalf of citizens’ human, civil, and/or constitutional rights. We all know who they are.
I am reminded of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who fully emancipated African American citizens by ending segregation and removing government restrictions on their right to vote.
Some agreed with the decision to end segregation but wanted to “gradually emancipate” African Americans by continuing to withhold their voting rights as American citizens. President Johnson took a stand and decided to advocate for both at a time when it was unpopular among many people (including his own constituents) to do so. During one speech at the tail end of his campaign for re-election, Johnson shouted, “It’s the right thing to do!”
His personal convictions compelled him to shout that statement even though he was almost certain that doing so would cost him the election. To his surprise, America cheered him, elected him, and was proud to follow his lead. All the way, LBJ!
My eldest half sister, Rohana, was the first to share the details of my heritage with me. She told me that I’m a thirteenth-generation American on our maternal grandmother’s side and a Mayflower descendant (via fourteen passengers, including John Alden and Priscilla Mullins). She told me that I am a distant cousin to six US presidents (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Bush, and George W. Bush) and one first lady (Barbara Pierce Bush). She told me that I am a descendant of Revolutionary War patriots Pvt. Edward Byram, Pvt. Isaac Lucas and Capt. Walter McKinnie and of the Reverend Peter Prudden, one of Milford, Connecticut’s, founders and the first minister Milford’s First Church. In 2008, I joined the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).
Having studied the history of my ancestors and read their writings, I’m certain they would find the practice of withholding any person’s true identity and heritage a grave injustice and would frown upon and rise up against any person or government that would take away any such freedom from their descendants. In fact, those values are what brought them (and many of our ancestors) here. It was woven into the very fabric of who they were.
It was important to our Founding Fathers to be recognized and remembered for their part in the forming of our great nation. They knew that theirs were the backs upon which the rest of us would step to realize our dreams of liberty and freedom. This is their great legacy and ours to protect.
Every American today has ancestors who risked everything to come here, regardless of what boat they sailed on or what year they arrived. It is one of many common threads that unite us.
The Mayflower Pilgrims were warned by their minister, John Carver, that it would be their descendants, not they, who would realize the dream of freedom of religion (the subject of our First Amendment). He warned them of the likelihood they’d die at sea, by starvation, or at the hands of the American Indians. They went anyway. They considered it “divine providence.” One hundred and fifty-six years later, when we filed for divorce from England by declaring ourselves a free nation, we were warned that the British were coming, and the revolution would fail because we would be outnumbered three to one.
We were. We fought anyway. We won.
Our Founding Fathers’ traditions included authoring or commissioning family genealogies, leaving behind funds to their churches to maintain stained-glass windows or pews bearing the family name or coat of arms, with stipulations that their names be echoed and their souls be prayed for by the congregation in perpetuity.
People operate from intention. These are not the actions of people who would condone any person being stripped of his or her heritage, nor would they support the idea of remaining forever unknown to their descendants.
The reason I’ve shared this history is to underscore why there is no doubt in my mind as to what our Founding Fathers intended for us or what they would say or do if they were here to advise us. They already have, in both word and deed. But most states have either forgotten or willfully ignored them.
Our DNA - Our Inalienable Right
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,
that among these are our DNA—
the road map to the truth of our heritage."
I believe that the right to our birth information is implied in the Declaration of Independence by virtue of the fact that we were endowed by our Creator with our DNA, which is the road map to our heritage. Some of the same folks who argue that it does not violate the Constitution to withhold birth information from adoptees also contend that it was not our Creator’s intention for us to know our origins. I believe there is evidence to the contrary.
The truth of our origins is in our DNA. We inherit 50 percent of our DNA from each of our parents, who inherit 50 percent of their DNA from each of their parents, and so on. As such, our DNA contains a record of our ancestry—our heritage. It exists in our cells from before our birth and can be found in our bones thousands of years after our passing. It is our natural, inalienable right. Essentially, we are inseparable from the truth of our heritage.
It is our basic, inalienable human right to know the truth of our parentage and ancestry. Our Creator has bestowed this everlasting gift upon us. So, the question is: Who among us should be able to overrule our Creator by stripping American adult adoptees of our inalienable rights and discriminating against us by denying us access to our own original birth certificates (OBCs)?
Discovering my heritage was both healing and liberating—not to mention a personal victory against New York State. I can’t imagine that anyone wants to pitted against their home state in a fight for something that rightfully and literally belongs to them, and no one else. We want to feel good about our home state, and not as if our governors are the enemy—the sort who continue to strip us of our rights versus protecting them.
I continue to fight the fight by writing and speaking on this topic, because millions of other adoptees continue to suffer at the hands of the forty states and the District of Columbia, that still don’t allow unrestricted access to our OBCs. No one should have to go through what I did to find out who they are and from whom they descend. It is a basic human need to know, and it is our basic human right to know.
Since 2007, inspired by my ancestors and my desire to help others experience the joy and liberation that comes with discovering the truth of their origins, I’ve been an adoptee rights activist. I am the administrator of several adoption community-related Facebook groups, and a professional genetic genealogist, specializing in helping adult adoptees and others with unknown parentage find their birth parents and other members of their families of origin.
I was an “adopted child.” I am now an adoptee rights activist, truth seeker, and professional genetic genealogist. It’s in my blood to protect and defend what I believe is right, good, and true. Now this is my quest. I hope it is yours, too.
Find out what you can do to support existing legislative efforts in the state of your birth/adoption and get involved by visiting the American Adoption Congress website: https://www.americanadoptioncongress.org.
 “The Idea of Adoption: An Inquiry into the History of Adult Adoptee Access to Birth Records,” Rutgers Law Review 53, no. 367 (2001), http://www.americanadoptioncongress.org/pdf/idea_of_adoption.pdf.
 “Birth Certificate,” Wikipedia, accessed February 20, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birth_certificate.
 “Legitimacy (family law),” Wikipedia, accessed February 20, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legitimacy_(family_law).
 The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, Accessed February 20, 2021, http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/.