By Janice Arellano, Larry Frankel Legislative Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania
“The emphasis must be not on the right to abortion, but on the right to privacy and reproductive control.” –Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Apr. 1974
The reflection and celebration of women’s advancement in the United States is not only attributed to the progress on Capitol Hill, but also in the arts, education, media, and popular culture. Women are dominating the discourse and driving critical messages of respecting women’s decisions with their bodies and stories both in popular media and in our everyday lives. Some of the people I have recently admired outside of the political or legal spheres in this regard are Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Sheryl Sandberg, Lupita Nyong’o, and, dare I say, House of Cards’ character Claire Underwood.
It is the year 2014, and there is much to commemorate during this Women’s History Month. Various pieces of legislation have been enacted over the past few decades, namely the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1979, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, and the break time for nursing mothers provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010. However, at the state level, particularly in Pennsylvania, there seems to be a need for a women’s rights refresher course for many state legislators. This can be a month to look back in reverence, or, for many women, it can also be a time to look ahead with trepidation.
As the third Frankel Fellow for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the first female to serve in that capacity, it has been quite an experience reading proposed bills from a woman’s standpoint and learning how often this viewpoint is undercut, even inside our state’s capitol. Just in the past few weeks, during Women’s History Month, I have witnessed one piece of legislation that was heading in the right direction for women’s rights but has recently been sidetracked by an amendment. Without going beyond the scope of this article, that bill (HB 1796) was meant to protect domestic violence victims, who are predominantly women, from municipal ordinances that penalize individuals who make too many emergency calls to law enforcement. It was a laudable piece of legislation, but an amendment was recently added that would ban local workplace leave policies designed to protect many crime victims puts HB 1796’s passage in jeopardy.
Proposed legislation: An adoptee given access to original birth certificate without birth mother’s consent
This past Tuesday, I observed a hearing on House Bill 162 before the Pennsylvania Senate Committee on Youth and Aging. This bill considers an adult adoptee’s right to access his or her original birth certificate/record without the birth parent’s consent. In most cases, the birth parent likely listed on the certificate is the birth mother. The sponsor of the bill provided very compelling testimony demonstrating the need to know his mother’s name, where he was born, and any medical and genealogical information critical to his complete history and confirming his identity. An adoptee and adoptive mothers testified as well. Throughout the hearing, all I could think about was whose consent, body, and privacy was kept silent. I wondered how the women who want to keep their anonymity to preserve their well-being and also to move past a very difficult, emotional, and personal moment to place a child for adoption would think of this bill.
A representative from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference testified that many women choose to place their children for adoption because the baby was conceived through a violent act, such as rape, incest, or other exploitative means.
This proposed legislation would significantly undermine the privacy rights of the mother and possibly bring about a history that a woman wants to keep in the past. Pennsylvania law already respects the importance of an adult adoptee’s access to the medical, genealogical, and social history of their birth parents, information that is helpful to understanding many aspects of a person’s future health and social decisions.
HB 162 would create true conflicts between the adoptee’s need to know his or her biological parents and the biological parents’ desire for privacy. Allowing the release of identifying information without the consent of the parties involved would alter past jurisprudence and interpretations of existing adoption confidentiality statutes and the intentions of legislators who created such statutes.