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The Debate: Adoptee’s Right to Know vs. Birth Parents’ Privacy

When it comes to modern adoption, there’s no shortage of important debates. But, as the nature of adoption continues to change, one question continues to take the forefront:

What’s more important: An adoptee’s right to know or a birth parent’s privacy?

Most adoptees would say their right to know their history holds the highest priority. After all, don’t they have the right to know who they are and where they came from?

On the other hand, many birth parents — especially those who placed in the era of closed adoptions — would say their privacy matters more. Their placement is their story alone, they argue, and they have the right to decide how much of it is shared with the world.

The truth? Today, it’s a bit of a moot question, for a number of reasons.

Beyond the legal arguments that have centered around this concept, we know a few things from the last few decades of adoption history. We’ll share them with you now, so you can find your own answer to this important debate.

For Some Birth Parents, Privacy Was an Expectation

Every adoption is different, and so is every birth parent’s story. That said, when many birth parents chose adoption, they were in sensitive situations:

  • They may have been afraid of their family members’ reaction.
  • Their housing, financial support, or safety may have been compromised if people in their lives knew about the adoption.
  • They may have chosen adoption to keep their child safe from a toxic situation.
  • They may have been worried about the societal taboo of adoption, and feared general censure if they shared their story.

For all these reasons and more, some birth parents chose a closed adoption and asked that their privacy be upheld. In some cases, they weren’t even given the option of post-placement contact — led to believe by outdated research that a “clean break” was best for all involved. This choice often kept their name, personal history and adoption details sealed away for decades.

After years of validating their closed adoption choice, many birth parents do not wish to be contacted by their birth child out of fear of the fallout in their current lives, or because they’re emotionally overwhelmed at the prospect of reconnecting. Placing a child for adoption is emotionally complex, even long after placement; an adoptee reaching out may disrupt a birth parent’s current life in various ways.

But for Adoptees, Knowledge is Now the Norm

Many birth parents want to “move on” from the adoption and the painful time in their lives that it represents. But many adoptees are not able to “move on” from how adoption impacted them.

When a birth parent’s desire for privacy is at odds with their birth child’s needs and desires, should that privacy be upheld, even decades later?

Consider why many adoptees of closed adoptions search in the first place:

  • They may need potentially life-saving information about their biological family’s medical history.
  • They want their own children and grandchildren to know where they came from.
  • They have unresolved feelings and something they need to say to their birth parents.
  • Or, they may simply want to know their own history and have the opportunity to get to know their biological parents.

All reasons for deciding to search (or not to search) for one’s birth parents are valid. There may be a dire need to learn about one’s birth parents, but truly, the desire to learn about one’s birth parents is reason enough.

Legally, birth parents have a right to privacy until their child is an adult. But at that time — legally in many states and ethically across the board — adoptees have a right to know. And that means getting answers from their birth family.

Explaining one’s status as a birth parent is never easy. But it will likely be necessary. It’s entirely possible that an adoptee may reach out to other birth family members, surprising all involved if the adoption is a secret.

When you’re a birth parent, being open about your adoption and answering your child’s questions may be the best course of action — for your own emotional resolution, as well as for your birth child’s.

Adoption is a lifelong journey, not just for an adoptee but for a birth parent, too. If a parent places a child for adoption, it’s not something that can be forgotten about or ignored in the effort of maintaining “privacy.” Instead, it requires maturity and grace to come to terms with. It can be hard, but it’s the reality that a birth parent accepted.

Simply put: A birth parent doesn’t have the luxury of maintaining secrecy about a choice that changed someone else’s life forever.

There’s No Longer Such Thing as a Truly Anonymous Adoption

Anonymity is no longer guaranteed in any aspect of life, especially in adoption. Facial recognition software, social media, digital footprints, the prevalence of DNA testing and ancestry websites — it’s easier than ever for birth parents and adoptees to find one another, should they choose to. It’s often as easy as a Google search.

Today, adoptees can, will and should be able to learn about their histories. Regardless of whether a birth parent wants to be found, an adoptee will be able to if they want to search. The same is true of adoptees: Birth parents can find you and might reach out, whether or not you want them to.

Prospective birth parents: Make the decision to enter into an adoption accordingly.

Adoption triad members: Prepare yourself for the possibility of being contacted.

Every adoption triad member should assume that they can (and might) be found at any point. This means that:

  • If you haven’t disclosed your status as an adoption triad member to the people closest to you, now is the time.
  • You should consider how you would react to being contacted and emotionally prepare yourself for that possibility.
  • You may want to reach out to your former adoption professional and let them know whether or not you want to be contacted if one of the other triad members calls the agency.

Ultimately, an adoptee’s right to know vs. birth parent privacy is a moot point. Anonymity is no longer an option in adoption; whether you had a closed adoption or you’re contemplating choosing a closed adoption now, you should know that there is no longer any way for your privacy to be maintained forever.

Birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees must come to terms with this as they move through their unique life experiences. It can be tough, but so are many other aspects of adoption.

If you’re struggling with post-placement contact, please reach out to your adoption professional or an adoption counselor.