People who were adopted in New Jersey would get access to their birth records – or, if their birth parents object, to their birth family’s medical history -- under a bill heading to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk after a 34-year effort to enact such legislation.
The bill (S-873/A-1259) also encourages adoptees' birth families to update medical information on a regular basis.
Both houses of the Legislature passed the bill -- spearheaded and sponsored by state Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex) and state Sen. Diane B. Allen (R-Burlington), along with other sponsors and co-sponsors -- after incorporating changes suggested by Christie, who conditionally vetoed an earlier version.
Birth certificates would be issued automatically for all adoptions in the state after August 1, 2015, with birth parents being able to state whether they ever want to be contacted and by what method if they do.
Birth parents who had their names sealed for adoptions before that date would have three options:
Allow adoptees to contact them directly;
Allow adoptees to contact them through through an intermediary; or
Have their names redacted from the records and only share medical information.
Birth parents would have until December 31, 2016, to choose one of the three options.
Advocates praised the bill as a significant advance for those whose birth parents had their birth records sealed.
“It was a genuine compromise and it was negotiated between our sponsors and the governor’s office,” said Pam Hasegawa, a member of the New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform and Education. “We felt very satisfied with the results even though it wasn’t exactly what we wanted.”
The revised version of the bill includes a key concession requested by opponents of the original measure, since some birth parents will continue to be able to redact their names from the birth certificates. Opponents had expressed concern that preventing birth parents from redacting the names would be a violation of their privacy.
In the past, abortion-rights opponents have led opposition, saying that some women would choose to have an abortion instead of putting their babies up for adoption if they didn’t have a guarantee of confidentiality. Officials with New Jersey Right to Life continue to oppose the measure.
“The pro-life movement in NJ will need to redouble and increase our efforts to try to combat the expected rise in the number of abortions that will occur once this law goes into effect, August 1, 2015,” said a statement on the organization’s website. “Please remember how your legislators voted on this measure at election time.”
Bill supporters have countered that few women putting their babies up for adoption choose to keep their names private and that even fewer continue to keep their names private when their adult biological children seek them out.
Under the bill, a request to view the birth certificate can be made by a person who is older than 18 and is either the person who was adopted; a descendent, sibling or spouse of the adopted person ; the adoptive parents; or a state or federal government worker for official purposes.
Various versions of the bill have failed to be enacted since it was first introduced in 1980, with the latest version being vetoed by Christie in 2011. At that time, Christie was seeking more restrictions than the conditions he requested this year.
For example, adoptees would have been required to go through an intermediary to request access to their birth certificates. In addition, Christie hadn’t agreed to a date for new adoptions that would close off redaction as an option, as he did in this year’s conditional veto.
Hasegawa likened the 34 years that she and other advocates waited for the bill to the five-week period that she once waited to give birth after the due date. “The primary feeling on all of our parts, I think, is an enormous sigh of relief and a feeling that we were heard by the governor’s office,” she said.
Hasegawa’s own story reflects the complicated paths that many adopted people have had. While she was raised knowing that she was adopted, she didn’t attempt to learn her birth parents’ names until 1975, when she was in her early 30s. She was able to get some information, which led her to believe that she had found her birth family. However, DNA testing done last year determined that she is not related to that family.
While the New Jersey bill won’t affect Hasegawa – she was adopted in New York – she has spent decades advocating for the measure because she believes that knowing one’s birth parents’ names and medical histories is a civil right.
“It’s not going to help me but it’s going to help thousands of people, and I think the strongest thing about this bill is that it’s going to put forward the expectation that there will be honesty in adoption and that the integrity of adoption will no longer be based upon secrecy,” Hasegawa said.
Vitale said the most important effect will be that “those children of adoption and birth parents who now in the future will have an opportunity, if they so choose, to meet one another and to be reunited.”
“We believe that finally adoptees have the justice that they deserve,” he said.
Allen said she “wasn’t sure that this day was ever going to come, so I’m so pleased that we’re here.”
“It’s just one more little strike for civil rights for everybody,” Allen said.