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Wall Street Journal


For All the World to See

September 09, 2005

By Kay S. Hymowitz

Like all top government nominees, John Roberts has brought out the inner Woodward and Bernstein in journalists, all of them hoping to uncover the secret that will change both history and their careers. As it happens, one of the first secrets to emerge in the hunt through the Roberts biography was the fact that the nominee's children are adopted. The New York Times began to pry into the children's adoption records, until public outrage forced the paper to back off. This outrage seems surprising in at least one respect. Why shouldn't our society's tendency to embrace transparency in all matters extend to adoption cases as well?

Certainly, transparency is at the crux of a profound change in cultural attitudes toward adoption over the past decades. Once outcasts in America's nuclear family romance -- Betty Jean Lifton, the adoption memoirist, once wrote of "the pain, the feeling of emptiness, of being outsiders" -- the approximately 2% of children under the age of 18 who are adopted have stepped out of the family closet into the sympathetic public gaze.

Adoptive parents and their children now have plenty of company in a gallery of contemporary family diversity that includes single- and step-parent families, gay families and children conceived through sperm and egg donation. In keeping with the times, the adoption process is becoming an up-front affair called "open adoption," which gives adoptees easy access to their birth records and, in a striking number of cases, a continuing relationship with their birth parents. If advocacy groups like Bastard Nation -- a group that lobbies state legislators and stages protests with placards saying "My ID is a State Secret" -- have anything to say about it, open records will become a civil right.

Still, open adoption is relatively new. Until the early 20th century, adoption was generally an unofficial arrangement, but by World War II most states had formalized the practice. On the advice of social workers, who began to play a central role matching babies with prospective parents, many states required that all records be sealed. Officials wanted to protect both children and their birth mothers -- in the vast majority of cases young, unmarried women -- from what was viewed as the shameful secret of illegitimacy.

But they were also hoping to fashion an ordinary family by erasing all mention of the child's disreputable origins. Officials changed birth certificates to make it appear that the adoptive parents were the natural ones. Families frequently withheld from children the truth about their birth; the adoption literature is filled with stories of an elderly aunt accidentally blurting out the news to a stunned 15-year-old.

But by the mid-1970s the theater of such scenes went dark as the sexual revolution transformed American thinking about adoption. With the increasing acceptance of premarital sex, the pregnant unmarried woman no longer faced a scarlet letter. In fact, in the new atmosphere her pregnancy became a heroic arena of free choice as she decided between having an abortion, now constitutionally protected, or becoming a single mother, no longer seen as "unfit." Meanwhile, in the tell-all spirit of the time, traditional respect for family privacy began to arouse suspicion. Adoption became one of the family secrets, like sexual abuse, that the contemporary young were determined to out. And many, like Ms. Lifton, argued passionately that ignorance about biological origins led to lasting psychological pain.

Adding to the logic of openness was the rise in international adoption, apparently the route of the Roberts family. The great irony of the sexual revolution was that expanding access to birth control and abortion didn't minimize premarital pregnancies; instead it coincided with an epidemic of single motherhood. Growing numbers of single mothers meant a declining supply of American babies for infertile parents. They began to look elsewhere -- at first, Korea, Thailand and Latin America and then, more recently, China and Russia. The resulting ethnic and racial differences between parents and children automatically rendered the hush-hush style of an earlier era obsolete.

International adoption also introduced a humanitarian cachet to a transaction that had often been infected with class guilt. Almost all domestic adoptions involve a lower-class birth mother and wealthier adoptive parents. Those adopting in China or Guatemala could simultaneously satisfy their need for a family, avoid class anxiety and save a needy orphan.

All these forces have led to a dramatic change in the experience of all parties involved. Where once a young birth mother might have been so sedated during delivery that she never even knew the sex of her baby, much less the identity of the family who would raise him, she now has a starring role in the adoption process. She learns details from the agencies handling her case about potential adopting parents and may even reject those not to her liking. It's not uncommon for her to invite the parents-to-be into the delivery room. She may be kept posted on the child's development and even be allowed letters or visits.

For more adopted children, then, the days of lies and whispers are past. Instead of a lurking domestic mystery, adoption is simply part of their life story. Still, for all the obvious improvements over the past, the new ethos of openness risks creating a mythology of its own. Open-adoption devotees sometimes try to create a happily extended family for children out of the hard necessity of abandonment, as the titles of two recent picture books, "Pugnose Has Two Special Families" and "Two Kinds of Love," suggest. But loss and ambivalence are bound to plague adoption and its families. Adopted children will always wonder what life might have been like had their birth parents raised them, and many will feel what Nancy Verrier calls in a book by that title "the primal wound." Birth parents will always muse over the what-ifs of their lives, and some will resent the richer people their children call mom and dad.

And adoptive parents will always have to accept some measure of insecurity. Not only might they feel wounded by their child's divided feelings. They also have to live with the knowledge that birth parents, however rarely, do change their minds. Anyone who remembers the riveting case in the 1990s of two-year-old Jessica DeBoer, whose adoptive parents were forced to give her to birth parents she had never met or heard of, knows such a loss is the stuff of howling heartbreak. Open adoption can only intensify the uncertainty. According to many would-be parents who turn to international adoption, they prefer going to Russia even though it means struggling with foreign bureaucracies because it puts oceans (both literal and legal) between them and their child's birth parents.

All these lingering complications explain why open adoption has yet to be fully embraced. We may live in a Bastard Nation, but only five states have thus far made open birth records a legal right. It seems that Americans don't want to give up entirely on family privacy. The fury that greeted the Times' meddling into the past of John Roberts's children is proof of that.

Original Source:



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