Bill sparks struggle over info, access to birth parents

Standing near the back rail in the Louisiana House chamber early Thursday morning, state Rep. Clay Schexnayder looked relaxed and ready to embark on the day’s legislative business.

Schexnayder, R-Sorrento, chatted with a lobbyist while state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, sipped a cup of raw milk and munched on a pastry. The gavel hadn’t fallen yet, giving legislators time to ease into the day before studying the agenda and casting votes.

The mood changed when talk turned to Schexnayder’s adoption-law legislation, House Bill 1028. “I’m not going to give a comment (on it),” Schexnayder said, moving away from the rail and returning to his desk.

HB1028 is pitting adoptees against organizations such as the Catholic Church and the Louisiana Right to Life Federation.

The disagreement boils down to access: How much information should adults who were adopted as children receive about their birth families?

“I believe that all adopted persons should be able to know their ‘chapter one’ and have access to their original birth certificate. What they do with it is their personal journey. But it is their right to have the government document that records the truths of their birth,” said Elise Bateman-Lewis, a Maryland resident who was adopted as a child in Louisiana.

Adopted children in Louisiana receive a new birth certificate once their adoption is finalized. The new certificate erases details about their birth families. The state keeps the original birth certificate — with the names of the birth mother and the birth father — under seal.

Adults adopted as children and birth parents can reunite through a voluntary registry, but both parties have to opt in.

The Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops wants to preserve the privacy of the adoption process, arguing birth parents were promised anonymity when they relinquished their children. The Louisiana Right to Life Federation also wants to protect the anonymity, arguing it helps convince mothers to choose life over abortion.

Adoptees say they want their civil rights restored, giving them access to the birth certificate issued when they first drew breath. They say their request goes beyond curiosity about their origins: They also want key medical details, which can help them live longer, healthier lives.

For many legislators, the battlefield is familiar terrain. In 2011, state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, filed legislation to give adopted children access to their original birth certificates once they turned age 24. The bill never made it out of the Senate.

Schexnayder entered the fray this year with HB1028. As originally written, the legislation gave birth parents until Jan. 1, 2015, to expressly choose not to allow the release of their offspring’s original birth certificates.

Critics complained any parent who wanted anonymity but didn’t know about the deadline soon could be getting a knock at their door from a child relinquished decades ago.

Supporters praised the bill, though they offered different reasons for their backing.

Some said adopted children deserve a potentially life-saving family medical history. Others said unsealing original birth certificates is an issue of civil equality.

Schexnayder vowed to take another crack at it, and he did between the committee room and the House chamber.

The bill, which passed the House 98-0 on April 16 and was sent to the Senate, offers adoptees, at the minimum, updated family medical information without any identifying details about their birth families. However, there are no penalties for birth parents who fail to file the medical history with the state.

Benjamin Clapper, executive director of the Louisiana Right to Life Federation, is fine with HB1028 in its current form.

“What he’s done is strike a pretty good compromise between retaining confidentiality but creating a better system whereby an adoptee can get family medical records,” he said.

Clapper said adoptees do not need their original birth certificates to find out if they are at risk for diabetes, breast cancer or other potentially fatal diseases. He said a birth certificate lists the parents’ names and addresses, not the cause of death for the maternal grandfather.

The Louisiana Adoption Support Alliance, a nonprofit organization of birth families, adoptees, adoptive families and friends, said the amendments adopted on the House floor changed the structure and intent of the bill.

The alliance said the original bill would have restored civil rights to adoptees after a waiting and outreach period that allowed birth parents a chance to protect their privacy. At the end of the day, the organization said, the adoptee would have current and updated family medical information.

“These amendments, in part, would require birth parents to register with the Louisiana Voluntary Registry and then give either their approval or denial before an adult adoptee could request document access.

“Because many birth parents are deceased and cannot register, or are unaware of the registry and don’t know to register, or were told they had no right to ever contact their adopted child and won’t register, the (amended bill) would permanently deny to a significant portion of adult adoptees their opportunity to receive an up-to-date biological family medical history,” the organization said.

Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, an organizer with the national Adoptee Rights Coalition, said state law seals birth certificates, not the birth parents. She questioned whether a law can be passed requiring people to disclose medical information.

“An adoptee wanting to know where they came from is no more wrong than Dr. Leakey trying to find our connections in evolution. It is no more wrong than the hours dedicated on the Discovery Channel to shows about whether we came from comets or asteroids or ancient aliens.

“There is a reason why genealogy is one of the biggest hobbies in the USA. We all want to know. And the (birth certificate) belongs to the people for which it was created, and it is wrong to deny them what is theirs,” she said.