Calling for an End to the “Baby Scoop” Era

Late last month, the New York State Assembly did what the Connecticut House of Representatives would not: restore the rights of adult adoptees to access their own original birth certificates. The 140-6 vote marked a major step toward the end an oppressive era of U.S. history that called unmarried mothers “ruined,” their children “bastards” and created laws designed to hide both’s “shame.”

As was the case during early Connecticut House discussions on SB 972, “An Act Concerning Access to Original Birth Certificates By Adult Adopted Persons,” some New York lawmakers initially said they opposed adoptees’ accessing their original birth certificates, citing concerns about possible decades-old promises of confidentiality made to mothers who relinquished their children.

As contrary as it may sound, restoring adoptees’ access to their original birth certificates actually provides more privacy for both birth parents and adoptees. It gives adoptees searching for their roots, as well as birth parents looking for their children, the ability to directly reach out to the biological mother or father listed on their birth certificate—rather than try to find names or make contact through the second cousin, aunt, sibling or other family member they may have found through an Ancestry or 23andMe DNA test. 

For those who are not familiar with how consumer DNA testing works, the chart below helps illustrate why genetic secrecy no longer exists. It also shows why the best and most private option for both birth parents and adoptees is for every state is to pass a law that restores rights for adult adoptees to access their original birth certificates.

The idea that birth mothers need protection from the adult son or daughter  they relinquished for adoption—living proof of their supposed harlot-like past—is one born during the “Baby Scoop Era,” a period of U.S. history in which being single and pregnant was just about the worst thing a woman could do. Starting in the late 1940s, and continuing through the mid-1980s, single women who became pregnant were sent to stay with far-away relatives or in maternity homes, forced to live under assumed names and received “rehabilitation services” to help ensure they wouldn’t “repeat their mistake.” Most were also told they had absolutely no choice but to give up their babies, even though this was not the truth. 

Statistics from the nine states that already grant this right to adult adoptees show that few birth mothers want “privacy.” According to research conducted by the American Adoption Congress, only 0.05 percent of U.S. birth mothers, or roughly 1 in 2,000, prefer not to be contacted by the adult son or daughter they gave up for adoption. Legislators in several states have also been misguided to believe that legal contracts ensuring confidentiality were made with birth mothers, when they were not. The truth, in fact, is that at the time these women relinquished, the law said their children could access their original birth certificates when they turned 18. 

“We have done historic things in this chamber, and this bill rights a historic wrong,” New York Assembly member Pam Hunter of Syracuse told her colleagues on the floor. She also shared her story about being an adoptee; they responded with a standing ovation. “I implore all of my colleagues to stand on courage and vote in the affirmative. Because if you think [that by voting no] you’re protecting a birth mother who’s now a senior citizen, it’s her right to say no. Let my birth mother tell me no. You should not have the right to tell me no.” 

Like Hunter, countless adoptees have shared similar testimonies in states across the U.S. They’ve spoken up because they’ve have the encouragement and support of friends, family, medical experts and other professionals who, today, understand the need to change outdated and misguided laws and mindsets that still linger from the past; who understand the too-often-debilitating consequences of lifelong secrecy and shame. 

Birth mothers have never received this kind of support or encouragement to use their voices. Following the rules set for them by their generation, they were told to stay silent, and they did—in some instances for 50, 60, 70 or even 80 years or more.

New York’s lawmakers ultimately came to realize that not only did the majority of affected birth mothers never want nor ask for privacy, but that today, because of commercial DNA testing, genetic secrecy is no longer possible. Once signed by Governor Cuomo, who has indicated support for the bill, New York’s new law will enable adult adoptees born there to request their original birth certificates starting January 15.

Massachusetts, Texas, Florida and Arizona have also had bills to restore original birth certificate rights to adoptees’ introduced in their legislatures this year. Those states, and the 36 other states that have restricted adoptees’ access to their original birth certificates, now have the opportunity to follow in the model of this progress, restore adoptees’ rights to their original birth certificates and, in doing so, restore the rights and dignity of women who were denied the choice of whether to parent, shamed for their sexuality, and punished for becoming pregnant “out of wedlock” and breaking society’s patriarchal norms.

Through policies like that in New York, lawmakers across the country can give a voice to yet another group of women who were told to stay silent.


Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based writer, president of the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization for Women and an adult adoptee.