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Do Adopted Kids Have a Right to Learn About Their Roots?

Aired May 31, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, a new Oregon law gives adoptees access to their birth records. Do adopted kids have the right to learn about their roots?


CATHY ALLEN, ADOPTEE: My absolute dream would be able to find some family members that could give me some medical history.


PRESS: Or is it invasion of a birth mother's privacy?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have a right to the privacy that I was promised by the state.


ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Mary Matalin. In the CROSSFIRE, William Pierce, founding president and now consultant to the National Council for Adoption; and in Portland, Oregon, Delores Teller president of the Oregon Adoptive Rights Association and vice president of the American Adoption Congress.

PRESS: Good evening, welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Where did I come from? Thousands of adopted children in the state of Oregon may now get an answer to that question. Because Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor refused to block it, a measure passed by voters two years ago finally took effect in Oregon today, giving adoptees 21 years or older access to all their birth records and at least the possibility of contacting their birth parents. The same right now exists in Tennessee, Alaska, Delaware and Kansas, and soon in Alabama.

In Oregon, adopted persons like Geena Stonum expressed relief, quote: "I have a wonderful family, but there's still that piece that's missing" -- end quote.

But some birth mothers who sued to block the law say it violates the promise of privacy they received when giving up babies for adoption years ago, and in some cases, would reopen old and painful wounds. That's our CROSSFIRE tonight. Do adopted children have a right to know who their birth mother is even if she wants to keep it a secret?


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Ms. Teller, no one -- everyone, let me put it this way, has sympathy with these adoptees, but let's look at the situation from the mother's perspective. None of these children were given up easily, one of our adoptive mothers who gave her child up was because the child was a product of violent rape. She says it still haunts her, it jolts her awake at night. She has gone on to build a life, she has reared five children, and she does not want to see her new daughter, and what she has said of the new law is that -- this is Cindy speaking: "All we are asking for is the same thing everybody else in America has. I want my right to privacy. I want to control the release of my identity.

Should Cindy be traumatized twice?

DELORES TELLER, OREGON ADOPTIVE RIGHTS ASSOCIATION: Well, there are many birth mothers, such as myself, that are very excited what has happened in Oregon, and there are many birth mothers who have been raped and have seeked out their children and had reunion. So I have complete sympathy and compassion for Cindy, because at one time we were all in a place of darkness, and secrecy and shame, but we don't need to be anymore. And this is a wonderful law, and this is a wonderful day for birth parents as well as adoptees.

MATALIN: But that was your choice Ms. Teller. It is not the choice of all mothers. Here is Jane Doe 1 in this Oregon case. She said: "It will cause me anguish and renewed feelings of shame for what occurred decades ago. The events surrounding the child's birth and my decision to place her for adoption in 19611 were among the most difficult and emotionally painful I have I have ever experienced in my life."

MATALIN: Now her situation is ambiguous there, but we know some of the reasons mothers have given up their babies -- rape, incest, destitution, out-of-wedlock births -- which used to be shameful in this country -- not being of a maturity age, not being able to take care of the baby. This was a choice made. It was predicated on confidentiality, and over 1/3 of the mothers contacted in Oregon do not want to be contacted by their adoptive children?

TELLER: That is absolutely not true. It's been well documented that of the six million birth mothers in the United States, that 95 percent of them, including those in Oregon, wish to be found, and they support this law. And all of us experienced shame and disgrace and all the feelings that you just spoke of, but we don't need to stay in that place, we don't need to live the rest of our life in shame and silence. We can come out and have courage. There are so many of us speaking out, such as myself right now tonight on national TV. So there's no reason to hide anymore in the dark, and that includes Cindy and the six birth mothers. MATALIN: Delores, let me say again, I did not make up those statistics. They come from Oregon. A third of the mothers in Oregon, contacted through intermediaries, want to keep current life separate from that private past. They don't feel ashamed of it. They just want to keep it where they set out to keep it and were promised by the state it would be kept in the first place. They don't want their lives or the lives of their families traumatized contemporaneously. They're not ashamed. They're not coming out of everywhere. They want to stay right where they are.

You made a choice to seek your birth son. There are many women who don't want to pursue that choice.

TELLER: First of all, birth mothers have already been traumatized. And second of all, with all due respect to you, those are not accurate statistics, because there are far more birth mothers that have not been in that group that have seeked out their children, and we're not in the measurement from intermediate people that connected them, because most people don't search that way. So your records are not accurate whatsoever.

PRESS: Mr. Pierce, let me ask you first, I have to say that I can't know enough about my family. I want to know everything about where I grew up, my family, my cousins, my uncles, my grandparents and certainly everything I can about my mother and father. Isn't it cruel, just downright cruel, to keep kids in the dark about that intimate family history?

WILLIAM PIERCE, NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR ADOPTION: What's cruel is to interfere with someone's right to privacy. What's cruel is to take a woman who's made a brave and unselfish choice when she had her decision to make about her reproductive rights, when she had to decide whether she was going to exercise her reproductive rights and carry a pregnancy to term...

TELLER: We don't have that -- Mr. Pierce.

PRESS: Just a second, Delores, and let Mr. Pierce finish, please.

PIERCE: Let me finish, thank you. I didn't interrupt her.

PRESS: We'll come back to you.

PIERCE: Right. Right. They have a choice, a reproductive rights choice, either to carry a baby to term and place that child confidentially if they want for adoption, or a reproductive rights choice to terminate that pregnancy. You've got two rights there, they're both very, very well recognized, and they are absolutely trashed if you have one person say, no. You don't have any right to privacy, you don't have any right to make that choice.

PRESS: I don't buy that argument at all. First of all, these are state documents. A birth certificate is a state document. Why should the state be in the business of keeping people's secrets? PIERCE: The state is in the business of keeping people's secrets, because the state has laws which say to and you to me, the state is in the business of keeping your -- your IRS records secret. The state is in the business of keeping your bank records secret. The state is in the business of keeping any medical information you have about your HIV status or anything else secret.

PRESS: You know, if a father said, oh, no, I want to -- I want my right of privacy, I don't want my identity known, therefore, you can't sue me for paternity rights or you can't sue me for child support.

PIERCE: Fathers have...

PRESS: No, no, no, no, no. They cannot hide behind the right of privacy. Why should mothers deprive their children of their heritage hiding behind the right of privacy?

PIERCE: Which would you have them do? Deprive them the right to privacy -- I mean, their right to records? Or would you rather have them deprived of their right to live? Which would you like?

PRESS: Here's what I would like -- we're balancing rights here, I understand that. But I think you have to listen to the rights of the child. And Cathy Allen, we saw her at the top of the show -- here's how Cathy Allen described what she feels is really missing in her whole life. Just listen close.


ALLEN: It's like a key to diary. The diary is my life. It's been locked up for a long, long time. And having the key might enable me to open up the book and maybe see some answers I've been wondering about.


PRESS: Why not?

PIERCE: Because your rights, as the Supreme Court said more than 20 years ago, your right to get information is trumped by the birth mother's right to privacy, and her reproductive choice and her management.

And I things we need to do real, real quickly, Mary, is go back to the junk science that you heard. The fact is in terms of people who say no, you are correct, 30 percent of the women in Oregon said no. In congressional testimony, 40 percent of the women in Florida said no. The junk science that she talks about, in terms of the 95 percent of women wanting a meeting, is the same kind of answer you get if you surveyed the National Rifle Association and asked them what they think about gun control. It's junk science.

PRESS: Delores Teller, I know you want to respond to that. Go ahead please. TELLER: Well, first of all, he has a lot to be afraid of, because it is true that there is a very strong force of birth mothers such as myself that are very much active, and we are mad as hell that our children were taken from us, and we were coerced by people just like Mr. Pierce, who's organization 15, 20, 30 years ago, to sign relinquishment papers when we did not want to, and we did not have a choice. We were in a shame-based society, and we forced to sign papers. We were told this was the best thing to do. And half of us, including myself, were told our children would be able to find us and get their birth certificate when they were 21 years old, and they could not.

So the fact is that we will not stop. We are mad as hell, and we will not take it anymore, and we will open records in every single state there is, starting today.

MATALIN: Ms. Teller, this reluctance to provide choice to your fellow women is astonishing to me. There are other, better ways to balance the rights of the mothers who choose not to be found and the children who want their medical records or they want to try to find their parents. And maybe their parents do want to be found. There are mutual consent registries in 28 states. There are medical registries.

TELLER: They don't work.

MATALIN: Why don't you work toward making them work instead of violating the rights of mothers? And there was a plethora that chose to give their babies up for adoption. You're making it sound like you were -- grew up in China or something, having your babies taken away from you.

TELLER: If you look at the fact that we represented white middle-class women and girls raised in conservative middle-class homes, we were groomed to be wives and mothers. Therefore, we did not wish to give up our children. We were coerced to do this because society shamed us.

So the fact is that we already had our rights violated when we were able to sign papers, such as I did, at the age of 16 without a lawyer or a parent standing there telling me what was going to happen and the fact that it could impact my life...

PIERCE: Ms. Teller, can you sign...

TELLER: ... and my child's life.

PIERCE: Ms. Teller, can people at 16 today choose an abortion without a lawyer or their parents standing there? Yes, they can. And what you are denying...

TELLER: Abortion has nothing to do with adoption.

PIERCE: ... and what you are denying people is a balanced right to reproductive choice, a balanced right. And this is not a partisan issue. You could have two of the leading people who speak for privacy in Congress here tonight: One is a Democrat, Jim Oberstar from Minnesota; the other is Republican, Tom Bliley from Virginia. They are the co-chairs of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption and they are strong advocates for privacy.

This is not, with all due respect, a left-right issue. Most people with common sense, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, understand that privacy needs to be protected.

TELLER: There is nothing more private nor precious than the relationship between the mother and the child that she carried in her womb for nine months. And so there's no reason for birth mothers to be afraid to have to give basic information, whether it's through someone else, on a piece of paper or through a letter.

Birth mothers always have a choice to not have reunion, to not have a relationship. But we do not...

PIERCE: That's not true.

TELLER: ... have the choice to not give the truth to our children.

PIERCE: That is not true. Your law in Oregon does not allow women to say no, even if they've been the victim of rape or incest.

PRESS: Oh, yes, it does! Oh, yes! That's wrong, that's wrong, that's wrong!

PIERCE: No, it doesn't...


MATALIN: OK, everybody!


It may not be partisan but it sure is emotional. We're discussing whose rights prevail, the mothers' or their adoptive children? We'll be right back after this quick word on CROSSFIRE.


MATALIN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Oregon has granted adoptees access to their birth records, which they say they need for medical and emotional well-being. Birth mothers argued medical histories can be provided without violating their privacy or emotional well-being.

Does this law go too far? Arguing for adoptee rights is Delores Teller, president of the Oregon Adoptive Rights Association, and for birth mothers' rights is the founding president of the National Council for Adoption, Dr. William Pierce.

PRESS: Mr. Pierce, let's get a couple of things on the table here. First of all, I can't imagine any mother who wouldn't want to see her children, for whatever reason. But in Oregon, there are no forced reunions. The law gives mothers an option. They can say they do not want contact with their children or they can say they welcome it, correct? So what's the big deal?

PIERCE: Wrong, wrong, Bill. With all due respect, what the law in Oregon says is it gives them a contact preference. It does not allow them to say no. If the law...

PRESS: Yes, but they can express -- they can express no contact preference, correct?

PIERCE: Yes, but it doesn't keep the other person from going ahead and contacting them if they want to. And that's the whole point. It -- merely expressing a preference is not a veto. There's no barrier. Part of the reason that this law was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, even though there was a precedent in Tennessee, was this law is different. In Tennessee, there's a contact veto and supposedly a penalty that you have to pay, either civil or criminal law, if you violate it. There is no such penalty in the Oregon law.

PRESS: Now, let's cut through something else here. You keep raising the issue of abortion. That's what this is all about, isn't it?

PIERCE: No, it's not.

PRESS: This is the revenge of the religious right in their crusade to stop abortion one other way, isn't it?

PIERCE: Hardly, hardly.

PRESS: Well, then, let me ask you, why is it that the people opposing this law include the Christian Coalition, the American Life League, the Family Research Council? And they have said, even if you won't admit it, that their reason is because that if they feel that if a woman knows that someday she's going to have to confront her kid that she'll have an abortion instead of adoption. That's what this is all about, isn't it?

PIERCE: No, it's not, Bill, because if you did your homework on Tennessee you would find one of the organizations that worked with us to try to reverse the bad law in Tennessee was the Tennessee Planned Parenthood. In the appeal, which was sent to Justice O'Connor, which she unfortunately turned down, one of the signatories was one of the leading spokespersons for the American Civil Liberties Union in this country, Jeremiah Gutman. And Jeremiah Gutman certainly would not qualify for part of the religious right.

So I'm sorry...

PRESS: In Oregon, the religious right opposed the law.

PIERCE: You know what's nice is, what's nice about this, as I said earlier, is that both right and left, Democrats and Republican, agree that personal privacy is very important. PRESS: To the children, too.

MATALIN: OK, Ms. Teller, this is not a partisan issue. I just want to -- there are people on both sides representing all ideological spheres that are for this. But let's answer that values question that Bill put on the table.

What can you say about a culture that finds, finds in the Constitution a right to abort a baby but cannot find in any law, in any legal setting in the Constitution the right to have a baby, a privacy right to have a baby? Don't you think something's wrong in our culture when it's OK to abort but it's not OK privacywise to have a baby?

TELLER: Those are two entirely different issues, and they are constantly confused by Mr. Pierce, but they have nothing to do with anything. Birth mothers that relinquish their children to adoption make a choice not to parent that child. Women who choose abortion make a choice not to continue a pregnancy. Those are two entirely choices and it's never a yea or nay kind of thing for women that are facing an unwanted pregnancy.

So they just don't relate whatsoever, and they haven't shown to come to happen in Kansas or Alaska where abortion rates are down and adoption is up.

MATALIN: Well, they do relate in this way, privacy. The element of privacy is a factor that obviously is taken into consideration when a woman is making that difficult decision. And when these -- when the books were opened in England in 1976, adoptions of infant children plummeted, plunged by 93 percent. When mothers knew that their histories would -- that their histories could come back to haunt them, they choose not to take those babies to term, and they did have abortions.

This is about abortion. I say that loudly and proudly. We should choose life over abortion. And that's what this is heralding.

TELLER: Well, first of all, I hate to point it out to you again, but you are incorrect in your information about England. I have read that article; it is not accurate. And so still, again, it is not an issue whatsoever.

The privacy issue about birth mothers was something that was imposed on all of us, we were told we had to remain private, that if we contacted our children we would ruin their life, and so that was something we did not ask for, and it was not on any papers that we signed whatsoever nor have they ever been provided. No one's ever found any papers that said that we were guaranteed privacy from our own children, by the way, that's who we're talking about.

PRESS: Mr. Pierce, just to -- we're almost out of time, I have to get the health issue on the table, because you don't go to a doctor's office ever without their asking your family history.

PIERCE: That's correct. PRESS: Breast cancer, prostate cancer, heart problems, all of those problem, you have to know what's in your family. Doctors want to know.

PIERCE: It is certainly helpful.

PRESS: Again, isn't that the most vital information that you want to deprive kids of?

PIERCE: It is very helpful, and we do not want to deprive people.

PRESS: Helpful? It's essential.

PIERCE: No, no, it's not essential, because there are 50,000 children that have been adopted who -- from Korea who were foundlings and have no medical background and they have been able to grow up and flourish. We do believe -- please, Bill -- we do believe that you should have non-identifying medical, genetic and background information. We have fought for it for 20 years, the record is very clear.

What we are saying is you can have a bone marrow transplant and still keep your privacy and your anonymity. We do not believe that your -- that you need medical information to be identifying to work. All you need is the information. It can be non-identifying.

PRESS: I'm sorry we're out of time, because we have a lot more question, Mary does and I do, too.

Mr. Pierce, thank you very much for joining us on CROSSFIRE tonight.

PIERCE: Thank you.

PRESS: Delores Teller in Portland, thank you very much for being with us.

TELLER: Thank you.

PRESS: And Mary Matalin and I will be back with closing comments.


MATALIN: I just -- I really cannot understand this argument. All of a sudden, the rights of women matters not. You have an immutable right to privacy if you want to abort a child, but you have a flexible right to privacy if you want to give your child up for adoption. Where is the philosophical consistency here?

PRESS: Nobody is denying that women the right and the opportunity to put their children up for adoption, Mary. That's a phony argument and you keep making it.

MATALIN: Of privacy, privacy! PRESS: Let me just say -- let me speak.

MATALIN: It's not a phony argument.

PRESS: Let me speak, if I may.

MATALIN: Then address the argument I'm making.

PRESS: What you're doing is -- exactly, I'm trying to.

There are two competing rights here, it's not just the women -- that's all you talk about -- there are the women and there are the kids. The kids certainly have a right to know what their heritage is, and the kids certainly have a right to know their health history, even though this doctor just dismissed it. You can only get that from your family. You have to know that. I say when you put those two -- I understand. And I -- both competing rights...

MATALIN: You can give the medical history without violating the mother's privacy!

PRESS: ... but I think this one far outweighs the other.

MATALIN: There is a better way to do it.

PRESS: Let the kids know their history.

From the left, I'm Bill Press, good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: Good to hear them caring about the rights of children, isn't it?

From the right, I'm Mary Matalin...

PRESS: Always do, always do.

MATALIN: We'll see you tomorrow night with another edition of CROSSFIRE.

PRESS: Like Elian!



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