I do the math, and the math does not please me. It is not because the math is hard. It is because the main statistical endpoint—a mother’s death—is not a fun variable to ponder.
I start with a broad number: about 5 million of us, slightly less than two percent of the US population, are alive today. We are old, young, middle-aged, and all of us are adopted, some at infancy, some out of foster care, some internationally. Though I start broadly with these 5 million adoptees, I’m currently interested in those of us born between 1945 and 1975. In round numbers, let’s say we are just past forty years of age but not quite hitting 75. In solid numbers, we are 41 to 72 years of age, and there are probably less than one million of us alive today.
To us I say what you probably already know: your mothers are secretly dying. And to us and to everyone else I say what you may not know: most people don’t care. I can explain.
The vast majority of adoptees—people like me—have two birth certificates. My first birth certificate—the one called an OBC, or original birth certificate—-is a single official piece of paper that provides proof that I was born to a woman who has a name, a place, and an identity. That birth certificate is secret, and I cannot obtain it without a judge’s permission.
My second birth certificate, the one I can obtain by paying $40 to the government, tells me that I was born on the same date but to different parents. If you looked at this certificate of live birth—and if it was the only certificate you possessed and no one told you anything differently—you would believe that you were born to these parents. They are humans and they are listed as your parents and, I hope, you love them as much as all parents deserve. But they are your adoptive parents. In that way, your second birth certificate is a government work of fiction. It claims you were born to these parents when you were in fact born to different and, to this day, secret parents.
Up until about 1940, if children born and adopted wanted to know from whom they came, they could look up their original birth certificates at the local registrar. For the vast majority of adoptees born after 1940, however, the records of such adoptions are sealed and forever secreted away from the children, from the mothers, from anyone else. Today, only eight states allow an adult adoptee unrestricted access to his or her original birth certificate. Of all states, at least 35 states and the District of Columbia continue to maintain secret birth records, while the remainder of states significantly restrict access.
Many adult adoptees want that first birth certificate, the one with proof of name and birth and familial and genetic identity. And, as I said, it is generally beyond reach, at least for most of us. But the most vexing and serious problem with prohibiting full access today is related to two self-evident truths:
You die when you get old
Our mothers are getting old
And, yes, our mothers are dying. In fact, many of our mothers—those who gave birth to us between 1945 and 1955—are probably dead. Having given birth to us at an average age of around 19, these mothers would be between 80 and 90 years-old today. The life expectancy of a mother in 1925 was just short of 62 years. Today’s 80-year-old mother, born in 1936, had a life expectancy of a little more than 64 years. Quibble all you want with how to calculate and recalculate life expectancies, but the numbers and the self-evident truths don’t lie: we are losing time.
State governments are dismissive of the truth that our mothers are dying, and we are losing time for adult children to know those mothers. Indiana just enacted a law that, with significant limitations, will allow adult adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates. It is a promising part of a national trend that should continue. But continuing the debate about adoptees’ rights to original birth certificates, a debate that has been kicked around now for at least 40 years, should end quickly. States must provide adoptees full access to their identities. As we delay—and sometimes I cannot help but conclude it is a deliberate and callous delay—our mothers continue to die.