Panel advances bill opening adoption birth certificates

Negotiations began moments after a Louisiana House committee approved legislation Tuesday that would allow adoptees to look at their birth certificates and in many cases identify their birth parents.

The House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure voted 9-1 to advance House Bill 1028 over the opposition of church groups and others.

HB1028 sponsor state Rep. Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, immediately huddled with representatives of the Catholic Church, Louisiana Right to Life Federation and others who have successfully kept private adoption birth certificates secret for more than 40 years.

He said he’s looking for a way to get past the opposition that has blocked similar bills over the years.

“What I’m hearing is some sort of a system in which a state entity would gather the medical information, would update it every few years, and would provide the medical files to adoptees,” said Robert M. Tasman, associate director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, who oversees the church-related programs that include adoption.

“I think we’re going to have some sort of compromise before the bill gets to the floor,” he said.

Tasman said the last time he had seen the faces of adoptees supporting HB1028 was a couple years ago when a similar bill was defeated by the full Senate. “This is a hard position for everyone,” he said.

The bishops understand the need for adoptees to attain medical history, Tasman said, but they also want to protect the identities of birth parents who were promised anonymity at the time of the adoption.

The language in HB1028 undoes those decades-old promises of privacy, except in limited cases. Supporters say it is imperative adoptees and the families who adopted them as babies know their medical histories.

Knowing, for instance, that the women in a patient’s biological family has a history of breast cancer can help doctors diagnose symptoms and treatments. It even helps the person take early steps that could avert a medical crisis, said Schexnayder, who was surrounded by adoptees after his meeting with opponents.

“It’s not really about the birth certificates. It’s about health information. It’s about immediate information for these adoptees,” Schexnayder said, adding access to medical records is of “key importance” to the groups.

“We should be able to work something out,” Schexnayder said.

“What this bill does is huge,” said Andrea Carroll, who teaches family law at the LSU Law School and took part in the Louisiana Law Institute review of the adoption statutes.

Unless the birth mother fills out a form that expressly states a “No Contact” preference — before Jan. 1, 2015 — then the state would have to turn over an uncertified copy of the adoptee’s birth certificate, Carroll said, adding it only would be the “hip” and “connected” who heard about the deadline in time to act.

The guarantee of confidentiality is a protection, giving mothers another option than abortion, said Benjamin Clapper, executive director of Louisiana Right to Life Federation.

“We are opening the birth certificate records, the original records, to the adoptee when they turn 25,” Clapper said. But at the time of the adoption, 30, 40, 50 years ago, the state promised to forever keep that information secret.

“The state is now going back on that promise,” Clapper said.

Kent Gonsoulin, of Baton Rouge, said while medical history was important, it’s not the only factor.

“Adoptees have a right to know who they are,” said Gonsoulin, who attended the hearing with his daughter. “When I talk to adoptees, I hear a human need to know: Where they come from. Who they look like. What city they were born in. You know, who they are. It’s a huge need.”

Beyond the human needs are the practical issues of the need for health care data, he said. Adoptions that are taking place now include detailed medical histories of the birth families, which are given to the adopting parents.

People adopted in the 1950s and 1960s, when more adoptions took place in private, are now in their 50s and 60s and their health is failing, Gonsoulin said. “That medical information is imperative,” he added.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, participated in the negotiations and said he was uncomfortable with HB1028 because it undermines state promises of privacy by allowing adoptees to identify their birth parents. But voting against it would keep access to vital medical histories out of the hands of the adoptees.

“There’s a compromise position out there and you haven’t reached it,” Edwards told Schexnayder, Tasman and Clapper.