Her Story: Let’s Celebrate Women’s Privacy

By Janice Arellano, Larry Frankel Legislative Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Janice Arrellano

Janice Arrellano

“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.


House Bill 1796 | ACLUPA HB 1796

House Bill 162 | ACLUPA HB 126

Catholic Conference page on HB 162

3 thoughts on “Her Story: Let’s Celebrate Women’s Privacy

  1. The need of an adoptee to access medically necessary information is obvious. Surely a system can be developed where the identity of the birth mother is confidential until or if she
    herself chooses to reveal. It would require an intermediary with confidentiality safeguards.

  2. Here is the link to the PA Senate Youth & Aging Committee’s public hearing on House Bill 162:

    Readers should view the hearing and make their own conclusions.

    Those testifying in support of House Bill 162 included Rep Kerry Benninghoff, an adult adoptee and the sponsor of the bill, Carolyn Hoard of the American Adoption Congress, herself a birth mom, Dr. Mary O’Leary Wiley, an adoptee and a psychologist specializing in adoption matters, and Amanda Transue-Woolston, a social worker and an adult adoptee.

    House Bill 162 restores access to original birth certificates for adult adoptees ages 19+. Adult adoptees lost their right to their original birth certificates in PA in 1985. The original intent of the law was to protect the child from being stigmatized as ‘illegitimate,’ not to grantee birth parent privacy. This can be seen in the process of sealing the original birth certificate and issuing an amended version.

    In PA, the adoptee’s birth certificate is sealed when the adoption is finalized, not at the time of birth parent relinquishment. Once the adoption is finalized, an amended birth certificate is issued with the adoptive parents’ names on it.

    There is also no evidence that birth parents are ever legally promised confidentiality. Attorney Elizabeth Samuels did a comprehensive review of relinquishment paperwork across several states and decades. In her review, she found no promise of anonymity to birth parents.

    The Evan B. Donaldson Adoptions Institute’s paper ‘Setting the Record Straight: What Were Birthmothers Promised?’ tackles the issue of birth parent privacy in a concise, straightforward manner. The paper cites several methodical studies on adoption and birth parents. “The vast majority of birthmothers do not want to remain anonymous to the children they relinquished for adoption. Confidentiality for most was not a choice, but an inherent-and sometimes imposed-part of the adoption process.” The paper includes a statistical break down by open access states of those adult adoptees who receive their original birth certificate and those birth parents that file a no contact preference. The number filing a no contact preference was also a small percentage.

    There are also various national birth parent groups, like Concerned, United Birthparents (CUB) that supports adult adoptees’ access to their records.

    Current PA law does not allow adult adoptees easy access, or in some cases any access, to family medical history or birth family social history. What PA has is a mutual consent registry. Mutual consent registries have been found by numerous adoption studies across the nation to be largely ineffective. In fact, the first mutual consent registry in PA was so poorly managed, that three years ago in was replaced with the PA Adoption Information Registry (PAIR). In the three years since its inception, PAIR has only resulted in ten matches.

    The argument that House Bill 162 would violate birth parents’ privacy is null and void. Empirical research shows there was no promise of confidentiality to birth parents. Studies also reveal most birth parents are supportive of their adult children gaining access to their original birth certificates. The claim that current the system in PA for adult adoptees to gain access to family medical history and other non-identifying information is adequate is also disproven when investigated.

    The failure of PA ACLU to support House Bill 162 is extremely disappointing. House Bill 162 would allow adult adoptees age 19 and older access to their original birth certificates.

    That is all House Bill 162 would do. It is not about reunions, it is not about medical history, it just aims to allow adult adoptees to get their unamend birth certificates through the same process as everyone else. It is certainly not about women’s reproductive rights and it is unjust to characterize it as such. It is also incorrect to try and portray House Bill 162 as being ‘anti-women.’ Adult adoptees within PA are both men and women, this bill benefits both. It seeks to restore a right to adult adoptees that was only in recent history denied.

    The current adoption practice within PA creates a system where adults are treated differently by the government based on how they came into a family. The birth certificate is the government’s record of an individual’s birth. The state should not have the right to deny a set of people access to their original birth certificates. Adult adoptees are entitled to their original birth certificates, like everyone else, through the same process as everyone else. It’s time to restore this right to adult adoptees in PA. Please support House Bill 162.

  3. As a birthmother who was not only promised privacy by the adoption agency but also told by law that the birth certificates would be sealed I made my decision based on that information. Judges interpreted the law as well to protect the privacy of birth parents unless with good cause they did not open birth certificates. I would have chosen abortion if I knew my identity would be known. I was no different than women who choose abortion. I found myself in an unplanned unwanted pregnancy. Abortion and adoption were options. Just like abortion some women later have regrets while others are able to move on. Just like abortion some are able to speak about it openly while others will not tell a soul. The difference the gov’t isn’t changing the law to open abortion records and people who choose adoption give a child a chance at life. Life over a birth certificate I would choose life.
    No contacts do not work


    All women who said no contact and the adoptee wouldn’t take no for an answer.
    Oprah’s mother said no contact more than once and the adoptee wouldn’t take no for answer. She went on to other family members until she got what she wanted. It becomes a forced contact.

    The gov’t shouldn’t be taking choices away from women and making adoption harder.
    A women can have privacy when she chooses to have an abortion.
    A women can have privacy if she doesn’t seek medical attention has a child in a bathroom stall then brings the child to a safe haven.
    However women who choose adoption, seek the help of the adoption agency, gets the medical care for her and her child then places the child in the loving arms of adopted parents will have her privacy ripped out from her or no longer be able to choose privacy as an option.
    11% of adoptees requested birth certificates in Oregon. Some of those are from related adoptions and some are from open adoptions. As of AUg 2013 Ill had 2.5% and RI less than 800. It is a small group of people who have been able to organize and speak out across the country in support of opening birth certificates. They gather sympathy and empathy from legislature some while they go home and cause havoc on birth families. Birthparents who want privacy can not speak out without giving up their identity. They can’t organize, create websites or speak in front of legislature without giving up the one thing they are trying to protect.
    NO contacts do not work. Once the birth parents name is out there it is up to the adoptee how far they will go.

    Protect the privacy of all parties. I am pro choice. Pro choice not only for abortion but also adoption and the choice of open, semi open or closed. We worked so hard to give women reproductive choices and now we want to take them away. President Obama said he wouldn’t want his girls to suffer for the rest of their life if found in an unplanned unwanted pregnancy. He was probably referring to abortion. However, for his daughters to not suffer there has to be options that are right for them including the ability to choose adoption with privacy.

    Mutual consent….. let women choose open semi open and closed adoption. Every one is different.

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