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Adopting a Cause

illustrationFrederick F. Greenman Jr. '61 LL.M. '63 fights for a right almost everyone takes for granted. All people, he believes, should be able to find out the identity of those responsible for their birth.

As a pro bono legal adviser to the American Adoption Congress (AAC), the attorney in New York City has assisted with the successful defense of recent laws in Tennessee and Oregon granting adult adoptees access to their records. These laws reverse a decades-old practice of sealing adoptees' original birth certificates, making them accessible only by court order.

Greenman calls the courts' support of these laws "precedent setting." He also hopes the ensuing debate "has begun to expose myths," such as the idea that birth mothers want to hide from their children. "This Mary Magdalene myth is based on the idea that birth mothers ought to be ashamed and therefore that they are," he said. "That older morality may have curbed out-of-wedlock births by repression and shotgun weddings, but it doesn't work any longer, if it ever did. We need to create a better solution."

Greenman rejects the idea that most birth parents want secrecy. He says the rhetoric used by proponents of closed adoption suggests that adult adoptees will "track down" their birth parents and then wreak havoc in their lives, "like Edmund the bastard in King Lear." On the contrary, Greenman says, when birth parents are contacted, they are likely to feel "I've been waiting 30 years for this call."

Greenman speaks from experience. He became an advocate for open records when his own daughter came back into his life after more than 30 years. Born out of wedlock while Greenman was a student at HLS in 1959, she made contact with Greenman in 1991. They are now in touch on a regular basis. Greenman says getting news of his daughter, Jodi, cured insomnia that had plagued him ever since he and her mother relinquished their baby in 1960. He observes that birth parents frequently suffer from depression and its symptoms. "Often," he said, "these phone calls are our salvation."

Not everyone shares Greenman's conviction. Birth mothers were the plaintiffs in the unsuccessful challenge to the Oregon voters' initiative granting adoptees access to their records. New adoption laws have also met with resistance from some adoptive parents, who fear their children's affections will be alienated. "This fear is understandable," Greenman said. "But the people who raise you are the ones who are your parents, for better or worse. With my daughter I at best play the role of a favorite uncle."

Some religious organizations also oppose opening records. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints discourages reunification. The Christian Coalition has argued that without the promise of closed records, more pregnant women will opt for abortion, an argument Greenman says is strongly refuted by studies presented in defense of the Tennessee law.

At present Greenman is working with the AAC on legislative initiatives in New York and New Jersey to change their adoption laws. Currently only six states in the country provide nearly unrestricted access to adult adoptees seeking their records, although many states provide reunion mechanisms such as passive registries where both birth parents and adoptee can sign up. Because the registries are "obscure, bureaucratic, and geographically limited," and because birth parents may be "dead, incompetent, out of the jurisdiction, or simply too depressed to register and wait in suspense for the rest of their lives," they are ineffectual, said Greenman. Another HLS graduate, Senator Carl Levin '59 of Michigan, promotes an initiative to establish a voluntary national registry for birth parents and adoptees who want to make contact. Greenman supports the measure, provided it doesn't hinder more direct access by state law.

Some states allow adult adoptees to use an intermediary to search for the birth mother and request permission to release records or bring about a reunion. Greenman says studies show that the great majority of birth parents contacted did want to hear from their children. "It's a question of conquering the fear--and I know it is a terrible one--of the moment when the child asks, as my daughter did, 'Why did you dump me?'"

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