ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A 20-year-old bill that would make it easier for adoptees over the age of 18 to get their original birth records is up again in the New York Legislature, where backers say it has more momentum than in the past.
Supporters of the Bill of Adoptee Rights argue that information from unsealed birth records is vital to the medical and mental health of adoptees, while opponents claim that easing disclosure rules could violate a biological parent’s privacy.
The bill, which was first introduced during the 1993-1994 session, had failed to gain a critical mass of support in the Assembly until recently. Assemblyman David Weprin, a member of the Democratic majority and sponsor of the bill, said this week it has 80 sponsors, including members across the aisle. The same bill in the Senate is sponsored by Republican Senator Andrew Lanza.
“An adoptee has the right to know basic information about themselves,” said Weprin. “Why should they be discriminated against for a missing piece of the puzzle that is their identity?”
The proposed law would give adoptees in the state the right to get copies of their unsealed birth certificate and medical history form, if available. Unsealed birth certificates contain their original birth name, the name of their biological parents, the biological parents’ address at the time of birth, the date and location of birth, as well as religious and ethnic heritage.
Adoptees and biological mothers testified at a recent hearing held by the Assembly Health Committee. Among them was Ellen Mohr, 88, a Charlottesville, Va., resident who grew up in New York and began the search for information about her biological parents four years ago fearing that she “might not live much longer,” and because she did not want to offend her adoptive family.
“I was sitting in Catholic Charities, the person I was talking to had a medical folder about me,” said Mohr, who had been adopted through a Catholic agency. “She was sitting across from me and knew everything about me but couldn’t tell me.”
The original birth certificate could indicate if the adoptee had any medical complications at the time of birth and include the medical history of the biological parents. Proponents argue that adoptees should have that information to help determine if there are any health issues that could have been inherited from the biological parents and whether they should take any preventive measures.
Under current New York law, adoptees can file a request with the courts to obtain their unsealed birth certificate and medical information, but they run the risk of being denied if a judge decides the reason for the request is insubstantial. If a birth certificate is released, the biological parents aren’t notified unless they filed a consent form to release their contact information. Biological parents are notified of requests for their medical records.
The proposed law has new notification rules. Once the original birth certificate is requested, the biological parent would be notified and given the option to be contacted by the adoptee directly, be contacted by the adoptee through an intermediary, or not to be contacted at all. The adoptee would still have access to their biological parents name and last known residence regardless of the biological parents opting not to be contacted.
Opponents of the bill say that the measure could leave biological parents who were promised confidentiality vulnerable to unwanted interaction with the adoptees, including possibly putting them in danger.
“If retroactively applied, the right to privacy and confidentiality (of) the biological parents would effectively be cast aside and promote access merely for the sake of curiosity and eliminate the court as a gate keeper,” Suffolk County Surrogate Court Judge John Cyzgier Jr. said at the Assembly hearing.
Another reason supporters say the law should be changed is a growing need for the information in the birth records.
As of April 2011, the U.S. Department of State required certified copies of birth certificates that contain the city, county, or state of birth as well as a person’s full name, date of birth and place of birth as evidence of U.S. citizenship. Adoptees have had trouble when applying for a U.S. passport because their birth certificates are sealed at the time of adoption and information on date and place of birth is not readily available.
New Jersey has a similar bill in their Legislature, which passed the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee last month. If passed, New York would join Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee to offer adoptees unsealed birth certificates.