Back in 2000, Oregon and Alabama acted to ensure that people who'd been adopted could get access to their original birth certificates. Advocates of that goal, calling it an overdue recognition of basic rights, hoped the trend would sweep through the nation.
It didn't happen. The momentum slowed amid fights over personal privacy and other divisive issues. Today, just nine states give adoptees unrestricted access. Others provide limited access. And there's no systematic access at all in about 20 states, including the four most populous — California, Texas, Florida and New York.
"After Oregon, after Alabama, we thought, 'Wow, we're on a roll. These laws are going to topple.' And then we had to wait years," said Marley Greiner, co-founder of the adoptee-rights organization Bastard Nation.
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The issue remains highly contentious. Some opponents of full access argue that making the birth certificates available on demand would violate birth mothers' privacy and induce some pregnant women to opt for abortion rather than adoption.
Adoptee-rights activists, while calling those arguments groundless, have divisions in their own ranks: Some are willing to consider compromise bills that provide limited access, while others say it's wrong to accept anything other than unrestricted access equal to what's available for non-adopted people.
"It's a civil rights issue," said Claudia Corrigan D'Arcy, an activist campaigning for full access in New York. "What we have is state-sanctioned discrimination against adoptees. It's no different from giving you a different water fountain to drink from."
There's little chance presently of Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court wading into the debate to forge a nationwide policy; so, for now it's a matter left to the states.
One striking aspect of the debate is how it doesn't conform to the Republican-Democrat, liberal-conservative divide that affects so many political topics these days.
The states that offer unrestricted access are mixed in their political leanings — Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Kansas and Maine. California and New York are two of the most liberal states, while conservatives control the statehouses in Texas and Florida, yet the adoptee-rights movement has struggled in all four to make headway on the birth certificate issue.
Here's a look at those struggles:
State Rep. Richard Stark, who was adopted as an infant in New York State, introduced a bill in Florida's legislature this year that would allow adoptees access to their original birth certificates after they turn 18. The bill never received a hearing in committee; Stark said there was opposition from some adoption lawyers and adoption agencies.
One key opponent was Rep. Jason Brodeur, who like Stark was adopted as an infant. Brodeur said he would oppose any bill that set the stage for birth parents to be found against their wishes by any adult offspring they had made available for adoption.
"There should be a guarantee that if those birth parents don't want to be found, they won't be, but also an avenue where if they want to be found, they can be," Brodeur said.
Acknowledging that some are frustrated in trying to find their birth parents, he suggested that the state health department could become more active in helping birth parents and adoptees make contact voluntarily. "Maybe we can put together a clearinghouse."
Stark said he plans to reintroduce his bill next session and noted that the lead sponsor of a similar bill in Illinois fought for a decade before the measure prevailed.
If necessary, Stark said he would accept modification of his bill so that, as in some states, birth parents would have a chance for their names to be redacted from the birth certificate before the adoptee obtained it.
"Yes, I'd like a clean bill, but I don't think it's going to happen here in Florida," he said.
For adoptee-rights activists, New York has been perhaps the most frustrating state. For many years, there have been efforts at the legislature in Albany to expand access to original birth certificates, and all have failed.
This year, legislators passed a bill that would enable some adoptees to more easily obtain those records. Yet many activists, outraged by restrictions in the bill, want Gov. Andrew Cuomo to veto it. There's no timetable yet for when the governor's decision will come.
A letter to Cuomo from several child-welfare agencies called the bill "fatally flawed."
Rather than letting adoptees access birth certificates on the same basis as other adults, the bill would require them to apply to a court, and the state health department would then try to contact the birth parents to inform them of the application. If a birth parent is located, and requests continued anonymity, the parent's name would be redacted before the birth certificate is released.
Corrigan D'Arcy, a birth mother who has lobbied for unrestricted access in New York, says the bill ignores the experiences of states such as Oregon and Alabama, where there has been little outcry about expanded access causing harm to birth parents.
"In states where they did it well, nothing bad happens," she said. "Birth mothers don't throw themselves off roofs; adoptees don't become stalkers."
Of the bill headed to Cuomo, she says: "It codifies much of the harmful practices and negative mythology that's been attached to adoption. You're giving in to this fear tactic."
Democratic Assemblyman David Weprin said he supported a no-restrictions bill that failed to advance, but he rejected the argument that the successful bill was harmful. "It's a first step," he said. "Some people will get their original birth certificates who were never able to get them before."
Among the adoptees who hope to benefit is Larry Dell, 68, who grew up in New York City with parents he loved. He learned only nine years ago that he had been adopted as an infant, and that he was one of five siblings in his birth family.
"It was a shock to learn that, and the bigger shock was when I couldn't find out who my birth parents were," he said. "I understand the flaws in the bill, but I'm still 100 percent behind it... For someone like me, who's been searching, it's incredible."
Why is accessing the birth certificate so important?
"It means connecting with family, family history and ethnic heritage," Dell said. "And specifically it means finding my siblings... Who are they?"
Over the past 20 years, there have been several attempts in America's most populous state to expand adoptees' access to their birth certificates.
One bill died in the state Assembly in 2009, partly because of a cost estimate of $16 million to implement it but also because of divisions in the adoptee-rights community. Hard-line groups such as Bastard Nation denounced a provision that birth certificates would not be released if a birth parent objected; they wanted no restrictions whatsoever.
"Bastard Nation leaves no one behind," wrote Marley Greiner in a letter to lawmakers.
Jean Strauss, a filmmaker and California-born adoptee who lobbied for the bill, was frustrated by that attitude.
"They feel it's their way or the highway," Strauss said.
April Dinwoodie, chief executive of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, said it's crucial that the adoptee-rights community overcome its internal divisions. "We need to be able to work together," she said
A bill with no restrictions was introduced in 2014, but went nowhere. Marsha Temple, an adoptee and attorney who helped draft it, said there was strong opposition from adoption lawyers and a lack of strong support from adoptee-rights activists. She'll likely try again in a few years, she says.
She succeeded in learning her birth parents' identities after an extensive search and believes all adoptees are entitled to the same information.
"Knowing your place in history, knowing how you fit in the flow of human beings is a miraculous feeling if it's been denied you," she said.
Around the nation, numerous adoptees have been able to work around birth certificate restrictions by using social media or DNA testing services to track down their birth parents. Still, such options aren't viable for many adoptees in the restrictive states.
Meanwhile, an increasingly high percentage of U.S. adoptions are "open" — with the birth mother and adopted child maintaining contact.
Jean Ulrich of California Open, a group allied with Bastard Nation, says activists in California may need to patient, waiting for no-restriction laws to spread to more states before ramping up a new legislative effort.
Another option would be to circumvent the legislature and seek voter approval of unrestricted access via a ballot measure. That's how a no-restrictions policy came about in Oregon, but Ulrich and others say it might be difficult to raise the money needed for a successful ballot-measure campaign in their state.
"I have no doubt that a majority would vote to allow access," Ulrich said. "The money would need to come from adoptees — it's a burden they'd have to take on."
Adoptee-rights activists in Texas have been pushing for birth certificate access for years, but have been thwarted. They attribute recent setbacks to the clout of a single state senator, Donna Campbell, a physician, adoptive mother and close ally of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate president.
In 2015, a bill that would have provided adoptees with unrestricted access to their original birth certificates passed the House on a 138-1 vote, yet failed to advance out of a Senate committee after Campbell blocked it. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate this year but failed to reach the floor for a vote, with Campbell again instrumental in stopping it.
Campbell, in a statement provided by her office, said the bill "did not afford birth parents the privacy protections guaranteed by current law." She said adoptees should instead make use of a state registry that's intended to help birth parents and adult adoptees reunite by mutual consent.
"There are more than 600,000 adopted people in Texas, and Donna Campbell is the only one standing in the way of them gaining access to their birth certificates," said Marci Purcell, one of the activists spearheading the push for change.
An adoptee born in New Jersey in 1971, Purcell reunited with her birth parents in 1991.
"My birth mom said she wondered for 20 years: Was I OK?" said Purcell. "There are no words to describe the relief she felt that day I met her."