The Right Coast

January 05, 2005
The Rights of Adoptees and the Law of Unintended Consequences
By Gail Heriot

The Associated Press ran a story earlier this week on a new law in New Hampshire that allows adults who were adopted as children complete access to their birth records. The story is told in a way that is sympathetic to the adoptees and their often long efforts to learn about the circumstances of their birth. And that sympathy is entirely appropriate; it's easy to feel for them and their plight.

I am not certain how I would have re-acted had I been an adopted child. Would I want to know who my birth parents were? Or would I prefer not to know? Occasionally, one reads about the extraordinary birth moth er child reunion--like the one involving Joni Mitchell and the child she gave up before she became famous. But the typical case may be a lot less happy. The odds that the birth parents were drug addicts, mentally ill, or in trouble with the law are not insubstantial. In the end, it may be better to nurture a fantasy that your mother was a Canadian folksinger on her way to stardom (or a Martian, as the little boy who grew up in my neighborhood when I was a child liked to claim) and concentrate instead on your adopted parents.

What worries me is whether these new open access laws (the article states that Oregon, Alabama, Alaska and Kansas have similar laws mandating unfettered access) might have some unintended consequences. In the modern world, many pregnant women who believe they are not in a position to rear a child may be on the fence between adoption and abortion. Is it possible that the knowledge that there is no way to prevent the child from eventually learning her identity will tip the balance in favor of abortion? Obviously, I cannot say with anything approaching certainty. But if it does, the victory in New Hampshire for today's adopted children will turn out to be a loss for adopted children who might have been.