Health professionals have professional responsibility to help adoptees change state laws

Yesterday, I visited a medical specialist for a routine visit. Like every office of doctors and dental professionals I have seen for well over three decades, this office asked for background about my medical history. Such information can be helpful as shown by nearly all peer-reviewed science to offer information to help patients receive appropriate and responsible health care. 

For the majority of American adoptees, however, this simple process can be insulting and demeaning. It is another reminder how laws in most states deny potentially life-saving information to them because they are adopted. No other group in the United States is denied this critical health information based on status of birth alone. I devote a chapter to practice and problem in my forthcoming book, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are (Chapter 8: Who Am I?).

The National Institutes of Health highlights why every person needs to know their family history–it can be a matter of life and death with cancer.

Health professionals more than any other group are aware of the role genetics and family history play in determining a patient’s likelihood for disease, health problems, and risks from illness. I wrote at length about his in my post from March 20, 2016, when I was advocating to get my original birth certificate from the State of Michigan (I won that battle three months later). I noted, “Adoptees like all other Americans should by legal right be entitled to this potentially life-saving information. The National Institutes for Health reports there are more than 6,000 genetic and rare diseases. These afflict more than 25 million Americans, and about 30 percent of early deaths can be linked to genetic causes.”

Yet there is almost no support from anyone in all of the health professions or groups like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with the rare exception of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has taken a public stand advocating for this at the national policy level as a matter of science and public health. (Note, this group also was among many health experts who advocated in 1960 for adoption as a social-engineering policy decision that relinquished hundreds of thousands of infants–a little-known and controversial position I explore at length in my forthcoming book [Chapter 2: The Most Suitable Plan]}.

To my surprise, the office I visited did ask if I was adopted or if I did not have access to my family medical history. I was astounded. This was the first time I have ever seen any health facility acknowledge adoptees and that adoptees may not legally have access to their family health history as a matter of legal discrimination denying them their original birth records. 

When I completed my intake forms, I noted this fact and specifically wrote on the form saying it was the first time any health provider acknowledged the existence and reality of an American adoptee. When I completed my exam, I thanked my doctor for this evidence-based protocol and told her it acknowledged millions of Americans may not have their medical history at no fault of their own. She told me her practice absolutely needed to know a patient’s background because many of the health problems they address have genetic precursors. 

I also told her that my forthcoming book would be examining this topic at length. She was excited to hear about this and told me she would like to see the book. That conversation also told me many doctors may also like to know about the issue linking health, public health, and adoption and that my book can reach a large audience of readers who could become advocates for legal reform to change discriminatory state laws.

My immediate proposals to address this are two-fold. For anyone who is an adoptee, I encourage them to tell all of their health providers to change their intake forms to acknowledge health history is a legal issue that adoptees cannot change alone, and that medical professionals have moral and professional responsibilities to issue statements supporting birth record access for all adoptees, without exception. For medical professionals, I encourage you to become familiar with state laws that seal adoptees’ records and explain to the public how this undermines public and human health. This is within your range of practice to encourage healthy lives for everyone. Public health practitioners also need to be part of this, including the CDC. 

Finding kindred spirits in the quest for equal rights

This past week, I made some good connections online. Both happened through my Twitter profile.

Unlike some adoptees, I refuse to identify myself on that platform through my status as being adopted. I do call myself a Detroit native and photographer. That said, I find Twitter to be a great tool to share news leads on progress promoting equality for adoptees who seek to change discriminatory laws that deny adoptees in the United States equal treatment under the U.S. Constitution (14th Amendment) and state laws.

The first connection came with a Minnesota-based attorney named Gregory Luce, who recently launched a website for his Adoptee Rights Law Center. In his own words, Luce writes, “Nationally, however, we will work with lawyers and activists to develop legal strategies to advance adoptee rights, whether through legal briefs and research, support to lawyers on the ground, pro bono representation for adoptees, or coordination of state-by-state legal efforts.”

Luce has published a detailed state-by-state analysis of the state-level and mostly restrictive adoption laws. Anyone who is interested in the larger policy framework that continues to deny civil rights to adoptees should bookmark this page.

It was fun to connect with Darryl McDaniels, fellow adoptee and internationally known rapper, over Twitter about something we both care about.

Luce is not in the business of framing adoption as a wonderful “gift” or trying to be part of the larger and international adoption industrial complex. (That is what I call it in my forthcoming book, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are.) We exchanged a couple of emails. I shared with him my research findings on practices in Michigan, which I have published on my website. I’m glad to know there is an advocate who is using his legal expertise in this overlooked area of discrimination.

My second Twitter connection occurred when I sent a thank-you Tweet to Darryl McDaniels, one of the founders of the path-breaking rap group Run DMC. He had Tweeted support for adoption-records reform legislation in his home state, New York.

McDaniels, like me, is an adoptee. Like me, he found his family. McDaniels also created one of the best portrayals of the American adoption experience in the cover he did with fellow adoptee and singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan of Just Like Me. The video shows McDaniels’ birth and relinquishment in 1964, and what that meant to him and his birth mother.

To my pleasant surprise, McDaniels wrote me back with a nice Tweet that made me smile. That Tweet received more than 1,000 views when I last checked. It is very nice to know that there are strangers out there who are working toward the same goal, but with different tools and with great energy and commitment for the same thing—the right to what is theirs as a birthright: their original birth records.

The critical role of kinship in child-rearing

My forthcoming book, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, takes a closer look at the strong evidence that shows the critical role of genetic relations in child-rearing and adoption.

The debate of the role over nature and nurture in raising adopted children has been the central issue of the institution since its inception and later growth into a global business and social engineering system that literally has created millions of family relations involving people who have no genetic relationship. Adoption historian Ellen Herman, of the University of Oregon, calls adoption as practiced in the United States “designated kinship by design.” It has been a large-scale experiment from the beginning, testing what Herman calls “enduring beliefs in the power of blood, and widespread doubts about whether families could thrive without it.”  

A shot of some of the tens of thousands of babies relinquished for adoption through the maternity care facilities run by the National Florence Crittenton Mission. (Source: Sioux City Journal, “Wife of Nobel winner started life at Crittenton Center,” Sept.18, 2011.

Today, those who defend adoption, including social workers, adoption advocacy groups who champion closed birth records that harm adoptees, and many Christian and fundamentalist groups who embrace orphan adoption, argue that nature has a minimal or little role in the rearing of an adopted child.

The wealth of evidence from evolutionary biology and psychology and from studies of child abuse of stepchildren by a non-related parent show that genetic relations greatly impact child care in families, in most cultures globally. As Canadian evolutionary psychology researchers Margo Wilson and Martin Daly note, “There is nothing magical about parental discrimination: preferential treatment of one’s own young exists only where a species’ ecology demands it.”

Stories of abuse of adopted children crop up routinely, usually shared by adoptees on social media and not covered rigorously by the mainstream press. Occasionally a sensational story of a harmed adoptee does get extra attention.

Book cover to Kathryn Joyce’s book on the Christian adoption movement, The Child Catchers.

The 2011 killing of one young Ethiopian born orphan and adoptee, Hana Williams, in rural Sedro-Woolley, Washington, did lead to moral and political outrage and more nuanced reporting of the Christian transnational adoption movement. The writer Kathryn Joyce has profiled the business of global adoptions by evangelical U.S. Christian families  and the underlying issues of creating families among non-related parents and children in her book The Child Catchers. Joyce provides one of the most detailed profiles of this tragedy, taking on mostly taboo topics that many people involved in adoption do not wish to discuss, even professionally. Such discussions harm the very real “business of adoption” and what I sometimes call the “adoption industrial complex.”

Adoptees’ Experiences Often Go Unnoticed, But Their Stories Matter

Outside of these news flashes, adoptions happen daily and touch millions, and the tragic story of Hana Williams is an outlier. But the issues in her story matter.

Most adoption stories involve the mundane reality of simply growing up and having family relations, over decades. That experience is different for many adoptees. The long view of it over time can be hard to convey to nonadoptees, many of whom carry hidden biases against adoptees that also are rooted in most adoptees’ status as being illegitimately conceived.

The most recent episode of This American Life presents a story–360: Switched At Birth–that describes how two girls were switched at birth and brought up in two different families who lived near each other in Wisconsin. Both of the women described feeling lifelong differences from their family and even how their parents provided less interest in their well-being growing up. This is not remarkable nor even an indication of the two mothers acting badly to the girls they raised who were not their blood kin. The parents were acting as people will naturally do–showing discrimination that evolutionary biology research shows will ultimately favor one’s blood kin over someone who they know is not their genetic offspring.

As an adoptee listening to this story, I did not hear anything new or remarkable in this episode. I heard what sounded very normal to me, having grown up as an adoptee. It is called “being adopted.” It is how you live your life.

Likely the producers of This American Life wanted a story that was quirky and unique, because it was a classic “switcheroo story” straight from Mark Twain’s pantheon of stories, namely Pudd’nhead Wilson. It was not the boring adoption story about life as an adoptee–stories that do not get told well by most media. Adoptees’ lives do not qualify as news, except in these extreme moments. But these stories do matter because the taboo topics of illegitimacy and adoption, including how adoptees experience adoption throughout their entire life, impact millions of adoptees and their families.

You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are will explore the themes of kinship and parental discrimination in greater depth. For a sample, read a preview of Chapter 6: Blood Is Thicker than Water.

How Prejudice Harms Millions of Adoptees

The Outcast, by Richard Redgrave, 1851, Royal Academy of the Arts, London, documents the treatment of bastardy and birth mothers in England in the 1800s.

Today I  published a detailed essay entitled “Discrimination Against Adoptees Rooted in Fears of Illegitimacy.” In it I explore one of the themes that will be discussed at length in my forthcoming memoir, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are

My essay documents how the issue of prejudicial treatment of adoptees by states, courts, the media, and adoption agencies is almost never discussed in the long-simmering debate over adoptees’ legal right to their original birth records. As I show, discrimination can be seen in how adoptees seeking their birthright to know themselves and obtain copies of their original birth records are treated. By law, they are not considered equal to others in the majority of U.S. states. Many who enforce outdated state laws treat adoptees dismissively—even as threats. (See copies of emails written by senior Michigan public health officials how they responded fearfully to my request for my original birth certificate, as just one example.)

I highlight how this prejudice demonstrates a well-documented form of sociological behavior globally and throughout history. Historic and accurate records paint a grim picture of how this human bias translates into harmful actions. Bastards, birth mothers, and illegitimate people have paid a lethal price for their status. Remnants of that prejudice are alive and well today in laws that deny equal treatment to most U.S. adoptees by law, but also in how adoptees are treated when they seek their equal legal rights.

Boiling down my book pitch to two paragraphs

Rudy Owens’ Forthcoming Memoir

This weekend, I finished my draft book proposal for You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are. Like all creative endeavors, there are drafts upon drafts that describe any product of one’s imagination and experience. Here is how I chose to describe my story as a two-paragraph pitch. It starts when I first realized I needed to share my story of living a life as an adoptee and being a product of a system that has impacted millions of Americans:

“You Don’t Know How Luck You Are begins with a meeting between two family members, separated by the chasm of adoption, yet bound together by blood. One represented the villain in the other’s family lore, because he was denied, illegitimately born, and relinquished for adoption. I am that person, the bastard son of a man I never knew. The other was my younger half-sister, daughter of that successful and respected man, who for decades heard only dark rumors about me—all built on lies. During our brief meeting at her home on September 29, 2014, she shared these fateful words: ‘You don’t know how lucky you are.’

“At that moment, my lifelong adoption journey took on a new, more powerful meaning. At last the time had arrived to share this mythical story. But to tell that tale, I would need to start in another decade, when millions of birth mothers gave up their infants, leaving a legacy that impacts millions of Americans today. That story began in the Motor City, after a single woman found herself pregnant and faced on of the most difficult decisions of her life.”

I shared this my good friend, who is also an adoptee. He wrote this back to me: “I think this is really good.  If this doesn’t grab the attention of publishers then i don’t know what will.”

Soon, I will know if my proposal, the story of what adoption is, including a system the still denies equal rights to millions, may gain momentum and move to a larger audience. I remain convinced this story matters and it will matter to adoptees and non-adoptees alike.