Pennsylvania’s new “OBC” access law went into full effect less than three weeks ago. The law, as promoted by its sponsor and by various organizations, is intended to provide a “copy” of the original birth certificate, though last-minute amendments to the bill tacked on a birthparent name redaction option. I’ve now reclassified Pennsylvania from “restricted” to “compromised” when it comes to access to an OBC.
But there’s more.
Once the law went into effect, adoptees started to get their “OBCs” through the mail. Kinda, sorta, well—actually, like nope. Far from a copy of an original birth certificate, the document people receive today is so disappointing as to be laughable. Despite some adult adoptees excitedly claiming “I just got my OBC,” the truth is that they have been given something far removed from an original birth certificate, let alone a copy of one. Instead, they are receiving a shoddily produced piece of paper listing six data elements taken from the original birth record, with at least one of those elements subject to birthparent redaction.
As the new law states, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania must provide only a:
summary of original birth record, similar in form to a certified copy of an original birth record and consisting of only 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.
I initially had some fun by creating a “Get Your Own PA-Thing,” which you still can do here (for free!). My PA-Thing is just a recreation of what a Pennsylvania-born adoptee receives for an “OBC,” though with some added flair, like a shimmery gold clipart stamp of approval and a real but reproduced John Hancock.
But ultimately this is serious business, especially for those in the business of advocacy. So what does “OBC access” actually mean for Pennsylvania-born adult adoptees under this new law? The short answer is this: inequity.
Here’s why. Though it’s not well publicized, Pennsylvania-born people can request “all that I am entitled to receive by law” when they request their birth certificates. This is different from a birth certificate required for travel, school, or simple identification, and it contains at least nine data elements, including time of birth, hospital, and parents’ places of birth. It is also certified as accurate and is clearly issued by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Compare that with what adult adoptees receive under the new law today and you can see clearly that adoptees are not getting a copy of an original “birth certificate,” or anything like it. They are getting exactly this: a summary. Of a record. On a lousy printout. Without “Pennsylvania” included anywhere on that printout.
I’ve listed below what adopted and non-adopted persons get in Pennsylvania when they request a birth certificate with “all of the information to which I am entitled by law.” The chart, though, also reflects additional inequalities for adoptees in Pennsylvania: 1) adoptees must possess a high school diploma and 2) birthparents may request redaction of their own names.
|Date of Birth|
|County of Birth|
|Time of Birth|
|Parent Places of Birth|
|High School Diploma Unnecessary|
|No Redacted Information|
|"Pennsylvania" Appears on Document|
|Actually Appears Official|
So, what happened? It appears that remnants of Pennsylvania’s prior discriminatory law were left in place with this new law. That is, prior to passage of HB162, Pennsylvania allowed the release of information to the adoptee if a birth parent consented to release or if the adoptee obtained a court order. In cases where birthparent consent was already on file, the adoptee would receive a “summary of the original birth record,” which was specifically defined as “only the names and ages of the birth parents, the date and county of the birth of the child and the name of the child given at birth.” Voila. While this specific provision was technically removed from one section of the old law, it actually popped up in a different section in the new law, and it did so in a terribly confusing way.
Now, instead of just a summary of the original birth record, adoptees are supposed to receive a “non-certified copy of the original birth record.” But that in turn is then redefined in a different section as a summary of information “similar in form to a certified copy of an original birth record.” Huh? If you are as confused as I am by exactly what this means, you and I are not alone. Unfortunately, what’s not confusing is that the law then retains and includes the prior discriminatory provision, the one that appears only to allow release of very specific and limited information: names and ages of birthparents, date and county of the child’s birth, and the name of the child given at birth. Nothing else. And that’s what adoptees are getting.
Is there a fix? Sure, either through the courts or through the legislature. I don’t, however, see a quick or easy fix to this through court, particularly when the new law very specifically lists what must be included on an adoptee’s “summary” sheet. Legislatively, though, the law could be fixed by removing the prior discriminatory “summary” language and replacing it with what adoptees should all get: a certified copy of the pre-adoptive birth certificate. After all, this is the language at least one court used when it ordered Pennsylvania to release an adoptee’s original birth certificate. The court did not order a “summary” nor did it enumerate specific items to release. Instead, the court ordered vital records to provide “a copy of the pre-adoptive birth certificate.” And guess what? That’s exactly what the adoptee got, with all the information that Pennsylvanians are entitled to receive by law. That’s equity. That’s fairness. But, unfortunately, it’s not what Pennsylvania adoptees are currently getting.