Oregon voters have approved an initiative that grants adopted children the right to full birth information about themselves, including the names of parents who had been assured when they gave up the child for adoption that their identities would be kept secret. Whose right should trump in such a case--a biological mother's right to privacy or a child's right to know the answer to the most fundamental of questions: Who is my mommy?
Before I address your broader question, my first instinct is to say that someone's mother and father are the people who have devoted their lives to raising him or her--the people who have gotten up in the middle of the night to calm the child who has had nightmares or a bout with the flu, and who have supported the child for many, many years. In addition to this mother and father, adopted children also have a biological connection to the woman who bore them and to the man who impregnated that woman.
Human beings are curious creatures, and it certainly makes sense that many adopted children would want to know who gave birth to them. The children's claim to this knowledge strikes me as a strong one. People want to be reassured that they come from relatively normal people, and they want to understand why they were given up for adoption. I suspect that such a meeting and reconciliation can be balm for the soul of the adopted child driven by such curiosity. Bear in mind, however, that two-thirds of adopted children don't choose to do so--even those who live in states where it's easy to get information about their birth parents.
The situation in Oregon has an additional moral dimension. There was a time in American when having a child out of wedlock was considered disgraceful (as it's still felt to be among many Americans). Therefore, the assurance made to these pregnant women that if they put their child up for adoption the child would never learn the birth mother's identity was an important one. Because of this assurance, these women could resume their lives with the conviction that they had provided their child with a two-parent home and with the hope that they could now plan for their own futures without fearing that at some time the child would show up and his or her identity would have to be explained to a future spouse and children.
Indeed, the dilemma as to "whose rights should trump" is a cruel one. On balance, I believe that people who were given assurances of confidentiality have the right to expect those assurances to be honored. (On purely practical grounds, if these assurances are now violated, many people will justifiably never again trust promises made to them by government officials.) Adopted children might retort that their right to know their parents' identity is more pressing. But, in truth, adopted children should realize that it was the very promise of confidentiality that might be the reason they're alive. Had their birth mothers not been given such an assurance, they might well have opted for abortions, for even though abortions were once illegal, they were not uncommon.
But I do see room for a compromise. Societal values have changed, and there is less shame about giving birth out of wedlock than there used to be. Many mothers who once insisted on privacy might now be more open to knowing what has become of the child they carried for nine months. Therefore, instead of mandating that an adopted child's right to know is absolute, I would suggest that state authorities transmit to the birth parent whatever information or letter the child wants, and let her make the choice as to whether or not to contact the child. When medical information that could affect the child's health is requested, the state should insist that such information be supplied.
A perfect solution? Hardly. It just seems to me that it will cause less pain than the alternatives.
Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.