N.J. bill on adoptees' right to birth certificates advances

Susan Perry, 63, of Cherry Hill, with her granddaughter and daughter last summer. She has searched for her birth mother and said sealed N.J. records prevented access to her birth certificate
Susan Perry, 63, of Cherry Hill, with her granddaughter and daughter last summer. She has searched for her birth mother and said sealed N.J. records prevented access to her birth certificate (SUSAN PERRY)
Posted: March 01, 2014

TRENTON A measure to allow adoptees over 18 in New Jersey access to their original birth certificates passed both the Senate and Assembly on Thursday.

Proponents have long pushed for the Adoptees' Birthright Bill, which has coursed over three decades at the Statehouse only to fall short of the votes needed to become law, or a governor's signature.

Advocates, some of whom are now older-adult adoptees with medical ailments, claim one's original birth certificate can lead to vital medical, genealogical, and other related information about their birth parents so they can make informed health and medical decisions. Sealed records, they say, prevent them from obtaining the information.

Opponents are groups with political sway: New Jersey Right to Life, the state Catholic Conference, the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the New Jersey State Bar Association. They say the bill infringes on privacy. The Right to Life group says compromising the privacy of a birth parent could lead to an increase in abortions.

The bill - sponsored by Sens. Diane Allen (R., Burlington) and Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex), and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) - again heads to Gov. Christie.

The governor conditionally vetoed it in 2011, siding with opponents' insistence that birth parents' privacy should be upheld by redacting their names on birth documents, and that a confidential intermediary should facilitate contact between birth parents and the children they placed for adoption.

Some criticized the Republican governor - a potential 2016 presidential candidate - of appeasing his party's far right and conservatives with his veto. Last week, Christie's office declined to comment on whether his position remained the same.

The measure would enable adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates from the state registrar. It also would provide them with any available information regarding contact preferences by their biological parent(s) and their family history. Birth parents can choose to state their contact preference - be it direct contact, contact through an intermediary, or no contact.

"Balancing the right that adoptees have to valuable personal information with the privacy concerns of the birth parent, this bill could have a real impact in the health and well-being of New Jersey adoptees, and if all parties agree, could even facilitate the reunion between parents and their children," said Vitale after the Senate voted 24-8 to approve the bill.

"I hope this is finally the year we can once and for all end the discriminatory mistreatment that sadly continues to occur under New Jersey's closed record laws," said Allen, a longtime sponsor of the measure. "No one has a choice as to who they are born to, or any control over their family history, but all adults should have the same basic right to seek out that important information."

The Assembly approved the bill, 44-27, with three abstentions. Reaction to its passage was divided.

"Sen. Vitale made the case for why this bill should be vetoed," said Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, the state's largest antiabortion organization. "Just as it was stated that not all adoptees want their birth certificates and contact with birth parents, it should also be noted that not all birth parents want contact.

"Legislation that seeks to change procedures regarding a very complex issue, such as adoption, should take into account the rights of all parties. The nonbinding contact preference form contained in the bill does not achieve that goal because it allows the provision of identifying information of the birth parents."

Susan Perry, 63, of Cherry Hill, who is battling stage-four melanoma and has worked with the New Jersey Coalition for Adoption Reform (NJ CARE) on the bill for more than a decade, was encouraged. Perry was adopted when she was 3 months old, and sought the identity of her birth mother after she was diagnosed with melanoma 16 years ago.

"We are very pleased that so many legislators were able to recognize this cause for what it's about - a civil rights issue," she said. "Now, it's up to the governor to add New Jersey to the growing list of states on the right side of history."

Seven other states have passed access legislation for adopted adults since 1999. Pennsylvania sealed records in 1925 and enforced additional restrictions in 1984 on adoptees' ability to access their original birth certificates by closing loopholes in the state Vital Records Code.

An adoptee access bill sponsored by Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) will be heard by a Senate panel in Harrisburg on March 18. The measure allows adoptees who are at least 19 and born in Pennsylvania access to their original birth record without redactions. The House passed the measure, 197-0, in October.


sparmley@phillynews.com

856-779-3928 @SuzParmley

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