Integrated birth certificates are suddenly the rage. Part birth certificate, part proof of pedigree and custody, they are an attempt to mash the legal and biological details of an adoptee’s life into a single certified document. Here’s how it generally works:
- Upon birth, a person’s data is entered into the vital records system. If that person or family needs a birth certificate later, a certificate is produced and provided with basic information about the birth.
- After an adoption, a new certificate of birth is not prepared. Rather, the adoptive parent names are listed on the “integrated” certificate as the adoptive parents of the child (an alternative is to list the adoptive parents as the legal parents and the birthparents as the biological parents). Whatever format it takes, all established parents are listed on the certificate, which is why it is called an “integrated” certificate, integrating biology and legal relationship in one document.
- Only one certificate of birth is provided at any time: the integrated certificate listing all parents, whether adoptive, biological, or in some variations the “intended” parents in donor-conceived births.
- There are no other birth certificates other than integrated certificates.
Sounds interesting, but here’s the problem. Like the sealing of original birth certificates in the first place, the integrated birth certificate is being offered as a be happy one-size fits all solution for all adopted people, and one that will allegedly eliminate the sealing of birth certificates. It is actually sold as a single certificate for all births, not just certificates of birth for adopted people—except that adopted people will be, by far, the vast majority of people who receive such certificates, whether they like it or not. Most non-adopted people will never need an “integrated” certificate. They won’t even notice it.
Because integrated certificates list all parents, adopted and birth, it will obviously disclose personal information to anyone who generally has no need to know a person’s, well, pedigree. A clerk at the department of motor vehicles, an administrator at an elementary school, or volunteers with a soccer club or baseball little league will inevitably exclaim, upon seeing an integrated certificate, “oh, you’re adopted!” We already know how that goes.
The vast majority of adopted people do not want this and have not requested it. Rather, we want one thing: equality, measured by providing the recorded information about our actual births, whether that information is a reproduction of an original certificate or is data listed on birth certificates that nearly all states produce today (more on that immediately below).
A Word About Today: Data vs. Paper
You cannot advocate effectively on this issue without fully understanding 1) how birth certificates were created in the past; and 2) how birth certificates are created today. In the past—say for my own original birth certificate from the 1960s—there was an actual piece of paper recording the information that my birthmother or “informant” gave to the hospital. The hospital then added more handwritten or typed information and forwarded that piece of paper to the department of health for filing, like actual filing in a file cabinet. That piece of paper should still exist, either as a microfiche copy, a digital image, or as an actual piece of paper filed away somewhere in the District of Columbia. When I request my original birth certificate (assuming the D.C. department of health is ordered to provide it, which is another story), it should be an exact copy of that initial paper document. It should still exist as it existed in 1965: an original birth certificate with accurate details of my birth, or at least accurate to the extent that information on the certificate was (or was not) originally reported truthfully.
Today, however, there is no “piece of paper” that people record the details of a birth and file away in a drawer or photograph for digital storage. Rather, everything about a birth today is entered as data— bits and bytes that are typed or selected from an online form and then transmitted electronically to the state or local department of health, who then holds that data in a computer program for use when anyone requests an official document associated with that particular birth. When a birth certificate is later requested—generally for most vital records after 2003—that data is retrieved and printed on security paper, and the vital records department certifies that the data appearing on the form is true and accurate and represents the data (not the piece of paper) that exists in the records of the department. There is no “copy” of an original document produced, like my 1965 original birth certificate. It is only printed dots of data, taken from a computer system. Think of it this way: kids today are data. Older adult adopted people are paper.
Understanding this distinction makes all the difference in advocating for the release of original birth certificates for adopted people, particularly if you are talking about an adult adopted person or an adoptee who is still a minor. Minors today, for intance, will get whatever “data” the department of health deems “certifiable,” whether it is time of birth, weight, or a parent’s place of birth. And what is certifiable has changed over time (states have generally become stingy and have significantly pared down what is now “certifiable”) and even changes from product to product.
Certificates as Products
State and local registrars for the most part treat vital records today as “orderable products” that people request and a government office provides. And the kind of product you receive depends on what you need. For instance, if you need a birth certificate to obtain a U.S. passport, you would indicate on a form (or online through VitalChek) that you need a certificate for that purpose. You would then receive a birth certificate that contains your basic information but also, at a minimum, the place of birth of your parents. All of that information, however, is data. It is typically not some piece of paper filed away in a dusty cabinet.
This partially explains what happened in Pennsylvania recently with its “faux” original birth record, or what some people have called a hastily produced craft project printed on loose leaf paper. Rather than receive an actual copy of the original birth certificate (which Pennsylvania stores as an image), Pennsylvania-born adoptees get a specific selection of electronic data that the state has transcribed from the original record and keyed into its vital records database.
Thus, the single “product” Pennsylvania provides to adult adopted people consists only of a “summary” of the birth record and by law may only contain “the names and ages of the birth parents, the date and county of the birth of the child and the name given to the child at birth.” And in my conversations with the Pennsylvania state registrar and the agency’s lawyer on this issue, they were adamant that no one in Pennsylvania receives an actual copy of the original document. No one. Rather, Pennsylvania-born people must choose from a list of products they need today, and the state vital records office retrieves electronic data transcribed from the original record, prints that data on paper, and sends it to the person. In effect, Pennsylvania has gone full digital and no longer gives anyone a good ol’ copy of an original record. What Pennsylvania does is also likely to happen to all vital records: keyed-in and scanned data points will replace actual original records and all that we’ll have in the future are these digital bytes of our births, controlled by legislation. Which gets us to a better solution: a choice for our own product.
Choice is a Better Solution
I’m not opposed to one document that contains the details of my birth and adoption all in one place. I’m also not opposed to two documents—the original and amended birth certificate—that do the same, so long as I can obtain them upon request and without discriminatory restrictions. I am, however, opposed to mandating a single solution, and that is how the integrated birth certificate is being sold—as a wonder product that will solve the unsealing of original birth certificates. Worse, it falsely promises equality between adopted and non-adopted people, though the vast majority of people who are directly impacted by a mandated integrated birth certificate are adopted people. That’s not equality—that’s continued disparate treatment.
This is what was being sold in Maine recently by a small birthmom-led group of people. And not only did I oppose the Maine approach through written testimony, but other equality-focused organizations also did so as well, including the organization GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD). As I said in my testimony then:
Many adoptees, however, have no desire to discuss their adoptions, whether it is irrelevant to much of their everyday life or because it is a difficult or sensitive issue for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from the mundane (‘I don’t really think about adoption that much and have no need to.’) to the serious or personal (being asked questions, for example, about what happened to your birthmother, whether you were in foster care, whether the government terminated parental rights for some reason, or simply why a mother ‘gave you up’).
Adoptees have a right to autonomy and to control their own self-identification, including what they share about the complexities of personal and family information associated with adoption. They should not be compelled through the use of a state-issued “integrated” certificate to submit that information more publicly and to make themselves the subject of questions about their adoption, legal parentage, or any other various circumstances that occurred at the time of or after their births.From written testimony of the Adoptee Rights Law Center, on LD1688, a bill before the Maine Senate Committee on Judiciary, May 21, 2019
The better solution, given how states treat vital records today as a menu of choosable “products,” is to give an adopted person a number of choices from the vital records menu. Want an actual reproduction of the original birth certificate, presuming you were born sufficiently long ago that you have an actual certificate on file? It’s yours. Want all information printed on a single document, with all parents listed? That can be yours too. Hell, we’ll throw in biological siblings if you want (and if the legislature agrees). It’s your choice. It’s our choice. Because it’s truly our document. But mandating one solution in the form of a badly thought-through single integrated certificate? That’s wrong, and I reject it.
U.S. born adoptees are not the first people to take on this issue. It has already been kicking around in Australia for years. The government of New South Wales recently proposed an integrated birth certificate as a new solution moving forward. Some Australian adoptee rights advocates have rejected the solution, however, primarily because it continues the long-standing practice of amending birth certificates to list adoptive parents as birth parents, though the proposed law will give adoptees a choice to use either the integrated birth certificate or the amended certificate for identity. Advocates have also called attention to a motivation that may be hiding behind this entire issue: assuring that adoptive parents get their names on any birth certificates produced. As an adoptee rights organization in Australia said in a recent press release in response to the new proposal:
This reform is not about the adoptee’s best interests. It is about making sure the adopting parents’ names still go on the birth certificate, instead of reverting back to using an adoption certificate and leaving the birth certificate alone.Peter Capomolla Moore, Integrated Birth Certificates: A Slap in the Face to Many Adoptees?, September 4, 2020
I’ve only seen one proposal so far seeking mandated integrated birth certificates in the U.S.: the one rejected in Maine. But there is chatter about pursuing the elimination of sealed birth records by creating a mandated integrated birth certificate for everyone. I hope that chatter dies down or, if it is something that people pursue, they do not throw out a sham promise of equality while pushing a solution that decenters adoptees and treats them as second-class afterthoughts.