Deborah Jacobs, the executive director of ACLU-NJ for the past 13 years, is leaving her post in early July for another job opportunity. We can only hope that under new leadership, the New Jersey chapter of ACLU will come to better understand the adult adoptee movement for equal rights and equal access.
Under Ms. Jacobs' leadership, ACLU-NJ's disrespect for adopted people has been nothing short of stunning. Its consistent opposition to Adoptee Rights Bills has not only contradicted the decisions of district and state court judges in Oregon and Tennessee; it has even contradicted the national ACLU position statement on maintaining and releasing government data.
Perhaps the NJ chapter's misguided stance stems from the views of the late Jeremiah Gutman, a former ACLU director, who wrote this in 1999: If a birthmother "cannot rely upon the adoption agency or attorney, or the law to protect her privacy and to conceal her identity for all time, her choice to go the abortion route may be compelled by that lack of confidence in confidentiality."
Gutman's opinion is just that -- an opinion. It has not been supported by any factual data. In fact, statistics suggest just the opposite, that with more openness, abortion rates tend to decrease, yet ACLU-NJ has continued to disseminate this information.
ACLU national's inability to relate to the adoptee perspective can also be seen in the dynamics of its most recent membership drive. For donating $35, a contributor can receive a T-shirt embroidered with this noteworthy slogan: "Sue the Bastards." In some states, the ACLU rejects the use of words like "Indians" or "Redskins" to describe sports franchises for fear of causing offense to minority groups. Yet it has no problem using the word "bastard," which according to one dictionary means (1) an illegitimate child, or (2) something that is spurious, irregular, inferior, or of questionable origin. Since some adoptees are indeed bastards, you would think that the ACLU might fear causing some offense in this area. But unfortunately, the feelings and rights of adult adoptees aren't yet on its radar screen.
The ACLU's use of the word "bastard" in its marketing campaign is nothing compared to the hypocrisy of the New Jersey chapter's recent positions on adoptee rights. It insists that adult adoptees be treated differently than all other Americans. They cannot apply for their original birth certificates like any other citizen. They are a special class, and special rules must be devised just for them. They must pay extra fees and employ state-appointed confidential intermediaries to try to secure what rightfully belongs to them: their own documents of birth, ancestry and genetic imprint. It would seem that in ACLU NJ's view, adoptees really are inferior to all other people, as the label "bastard" suggests -- because in its opinion, they are not entitled to the same rights as the rest of the population.
ACLU-NJ claims that a birthmother must have an absolute right to privacy, even from her own child, even though recent court decisions say clearly that no such right exists. The ACLU's 2005 Draft Policy on
Adoption Records reads: "Birth parents should be able to choose whether to keep their identities confidential when relinquishing their children for adoption because that choice is one of the panoply of intimate personal decisions about marriage, family and reproduction protected by the right to privacy under the US and NJ constitutions."
You would think that when the ACLU states there is a constitutional right to privacy, it would cite some pertinent cases. But it doesn't, most likely because the courts have ruled otherwise. Here's what the Oregon State Court of Appeals decided in 1999, after a small group petitioned the courts to overturn the law that would grant adult adoptees equal access to their original birth certificates: The state may release original birth certificates to adoptees "without infringing on any fundamental right to privacy of the birthmother who does not desire contact with the child."
If that decision isn't clear enough, the U.S. Court of Appeals (6th Circuit) said this in 1997, after another group petitioned the courts in Tennessee to overturn the law that would grant some adult adoptees access to their own birth certificates: ..."If there is a federal constitutional right of familial privacy, it does not extend as far as the plaintiffs would like." The Sixth Circuit Court further explains: "A birth is simultaneously an intimate occasion and a public event -- the government has long kept records of when, where, and by whom babies are born. Such records have myriad purposes, such as furthering the interest of children in knowing the circumstances of their birth."
So according to several court decisions, there is no constitutional right to privacy for original parents, yet ACLU-NJ has consistently insisted that there is. The ACLU's opposition to adult adoptee access is also difficult to understand in light of ACLU national's views on the management of government data.
In its Policy #272 on Government Data Collection, Storage and Dissemination, ACLU states that "personal information should not be collected from individuals without their informed consent." What adopted individual has ever given her permission to have her true and legitimate birth certificate amended by the state and then sealed for all time?
Later, the ACLU policy paper reads: "The ability of an individual to exercise control over the collection, maintenance, and use by the government of his or her sensitive personal information is central to personal integrity and human dignity." Exactly! How is an adult adoptee expected to have that sense of "personal integrity and human dignity" when she is not even permitted to view her own legal certificate of birth?
And consider this statement by the ACLU: "Government should not use data privacy rights as a pretext to prevent data access; ..." Doesn't the ACLU constantly cite "privacy rights" as its justification for preventing adult adoptees equal access to their own legal documents?
A final example demonstrating the inconsistencies in ACLU's position towards adoptee rights can be found in this ACLU statement: "All persons should have equal rights of access to information maintained by public agencies. The identity or status of the party requesting disclosure should not affect the decisions as to what information is actually disclosed." We adoptees agree! We deserve equal access to our legal documents and do not understand why we must be considered a special exception, particularly in light of the fact that original parents were never granted an absolute right to privacy from their own offspring.
In her public appearances and communications, ACLU-NJ Executive Director Ms. Jacobs has shown a profound misunderstanding about the complexities of adoption. In a position paper urging Assembly members to reject an Adoptee Rights Bill last year, the Coalition in Defense of Privacy in Adoption, in which ACLU-NJ participated, said: "In many cases, the right to confidentiality was at the crux of the (woman's) decision to choose adoption." I would like to see the data supporting this assertion, since original mothers have told us again and again that they didn't choose confidentiality -- rather, it was forced upon them.
And then this troubling statement by the Coalition: "More women may choose to keep babies that would be best cared for by an adoptive family." Is the Coalition saying here that confidentiality is the key that encourages women to relinquish their babies? If so, the data screams otherwise. And who are they to say that a child would be better served in an adoptive rather than in an original family?
Before claiming that a confidential intermediary system is the answer to the adoptee rights dilemma, Ms. Jacobs in another advocacy letter makes one more deeply problematical statement: "Our coalition members have statewide and national experience which shows that a non-confrontational approach is an essential element of successful reunions."
Here, Ms. Jacobs makes the leap that the Adoptee Rights Bill was all about reunions, even though it was a carefully-crafted civil rights bill that simply granted to adult adoptees the same right that every other American citizen enjoys -- the right to apply for and receive their original birth certificates for a nominal fee. By using the word "non-confrontational," Ms. Jacobs seems to imply that those adoptees who search on their own will use confrontational methods.
This assumption is insulting and unfounded. We adoptees have plenty of experience tip-toeing around other people's feelings, and in my experience, tend to be more sensitive than the average person. Ms. Jacobs also seems to imply that coalition members are better suited to navigate the complexities of adoption than I myself am: a mother, grandmother and educated professional who has lived for 61 years as an adoptee.
I can assure you that coalition members -- the NJ Catholic Conference, State Bar Association, Right to LIfe, National Council for Adoption, Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry of NJ, and ACLU-NJ -- are not better equipped than I am to manage my own life. They are better equipped only to defend their own ideologies and business practices.
We in the adoption reform movement are not sorry to see Ms. Jacobs move on, as her stance on adoptee rights was not grounded in data or adoption reality. We hope that her successor will be open to the facts and will come to the same conclusion that the Florida chapter of ACLU reached long ago:
..."Careful scrutiny of adoption statutes and practices has indicated that legal changes are necessary, and that civil liberties of adopted adults are being violated in the absence of any state or national policy on this matter, and with the belief that adopted persons should be treated no differently than other citizens, the Southwest Florida Chapter Board has voted to endorse the following policy:
Numerous states have laws or procedures which impede the ability of adopted adults, their birthparents and other relatives to ascertain each others' identities. The ACLU believes that as long as state and/or local governments choose to maintain birth records, such records must be maintained and accessible without discrimination by virtue of adopted or non-adopted status."
Equal rights and equal access for adult adoptees -- such a simple concept, and one that the ACLU, of all entities, should be embracing nation-wide.