I just came out of a rabbit hole labeled adoptee rights. If you are relatively new to adoption politics, as I am, it’s not exactly a pleasant burrow to be in. Despite obvious common interests among us, the politics of adoptee rights can sometimes get nasty fast and, unfortunately, the nastiness exists among and between mothers and adoptees. Take Missouri.
Missouri Adoptee Rights Movement, or MARM, has been working for years to pass a “clean” original birth certificate bill in the Missouri legislature. It succeeded this year in introducing such a bill, and you can see the current text of the bill here. When it was initially drafted and introduced, House Bill 1599 gave adult adoptees unrestricted access to their own original birth certificates. That’s clean, unrestricted, no real limitations. And that’s good.
But, during the committee process at the legislature, a competing bill, known now by most folks as a “dirty” bill, added significant restrictions to access, essentially giving the birth parents—who may have surrendered their child decades ago—a veto power over releasing an adoptee’s original birth certificate. That’s bad, this veto power over disclosure of basic information. In reality, though, it would probably affect a small number of Missouri adoptees, about one percent or less.
Ultimately, and this is how it apparently works in Missouri, the clean bill came out of a legislative committee with all the muck of the dirty bill merged into it. MARM continues to support the bill and presumably has hopes that the veto restrictions will be removed or amended as part of the ongoing legislative process. But, as people began to ask and complain, is it now a dirty bill? A compromised bill? Something else? And then political infighting broke out.
An “action alert” shot out of California, followed by one from Bastard Nation. According to MARM, the alerts—which asked supporters to email and tweet every Missouri legislator to request they kill this new compromise bill—pretty much mucked up a process that MARM was already following and trying to coordinate. MARM accused Bastard Nation of interfering with its local efforts, and Bastard Nation responded with, well, vitriol, blame-gaming, name-calling, and righteousness about leaving a small number of adult adoptees behind despite many more Missouri adoptees benefitting. Angry adoptees and others lashed back at Bastard Nation (but not CalOpen for some reason). They questioned and lampooned Bastard Nation’s “purity” in staking out an “all or nothing” approach to adoptees getting their original birth certificates. Who was right? Depends on your politics. And your perspective.
And I still had some basic questions.
Like, why did CalOpen, the California open records access organization, send out an action alert for a Missouri bill? Why do that without, it appears, at least consulting with MARM, the local group spearheading its own locally-supported open records initiative? Similarly, did Bastard Nation contact MARM to find out what was happening on the ground, i.e., in the halls and in discussions among Missouri legislators and MARM supporters? Is this the best bill that can be passed currently, leaving some behind (i.e., vetoed by birth parents from getting original birth certificates) for the benefit of a much larger majority (those without a veto who get their original birth certificates)?
I ask all of these questions honestly. I hope that MARM or CalOpen or Bastard Nation can answer these questions, and answer another honest question: who is providing grassroots support on the ground, that is, who are the folks in the state of Missouri showing up and advocating and trying their best to do what Missourians want? That has to be asked and answered to get a full understanding of what appears to have gone wrong, at least initially.
I “get” Bastard Nation. And then I don’t. I get the humor and the re-appropriation of our bastardy. I love that, it’s what attracted me to the group initially. I also get the hardass politics and the bright-line demand to include everyone, all adult adoptees, in obtaining original birth certificates, free of any restrictions. And I get that there is no right to privacy or secrecy or anonymity for birth mothers on original birth certificates, even those in the olden days of the 1950s and 1960s, when unwed pregnant women, mostly white women, may have been falsely promised confidentiality or secrecy. That promise and other promises were all false, coercive, unenforceable by law, and not something that could even be promised in the first place. I get that.
But I don’t get Bastard Nation’s vitriol and tactics. The slash and burn politics. The flailing divisiveness. And I think it’s fair to ask Bastard Nation about those tactics, to criticize them even, without getting publicly slammed or excoriated or reduced to, well, whatever adoption-related group that Bastard Nation believes you represent, if you represent any at all (which I don’t).
For its argument for unrestricted access, which I also get, Bastard Nation strips all nuance and context from the issue of obtaining original birth certificates so that nothing is left except the purity of a right. Nothing. Just a piece of paper, all context removed.
It’s a beautiful binary matter, this right to one’s identity, and I get that. And it does not matter, according to Bastard Nation, if you want that piece of paper to find your mother. Or if you want that piece of paper for medical reasons. Or if you want that piece of paper before you die. Or, heaven forbid, if a mother wants her son to have that piece of paper. For Bastard Nation, all of those reasons are irrelevant because a right to possess that piece of paper is the sole and exclusive thing that matters—a right, it bears to point out, that no court has recognized as constitutional. I actually get that too, and I expect Bastard Nation would agree with what I just said.
But a significant practical problem remains—it is a sealed and confidential piece of paper without a broad context. Stripped of motivation and divorced of human need or context, Bastard Nation disengages those of different ilk or of separate motivation who want the same thing—that piece of paper. It follows that, and this is fully expected, that Bastard Nation would criticize what it calls the “woundies” (adoptees who adhere to Nancy Verrier’s Primal Wound theory of adoption), the “reunionists” (adoptees who want to find their parents), the “dying adoptees” (those who may die before they get their original birth certificates), or the “deformers” (basically, anyone who considers compromise on this issue). Bastard Nation has done this—criticize every adoption reform group except itself and two others— and has done it quite vehemently and, I might add, childishly at times (e.g., its leaders now suddenly call MARM, the Missouri group who worked for years to get a clean bill, “SMARM,” for reasons I don’t precisely understand other than it makes them giggle).
When you reduce the issue of open records for adoptees to the binary purity of a right—either yes or no, with us or against us—it enables you to diminish any adoptee who contextualizes that right—that is, contextualizes the original birth certificate. Desire, a human emotion, is futile, meaningless, something that apparently weakens the purity of an argument or position. Bastard Nation says that. It says that those who disagree with it are “more concerned with individual personal desire over the politics of class discrimination.” True enough. But desire motivates, excites, builds momentum, especially if it can be successfully coalesced. Sure, desire or motivation may be irrelevant (that is, adoptees should simply have a right to our damn original birth certificates without any restrictions, as everyone else already does) but dismissing it as emotional touchy-feely stuff only diminishes those who can help build and be part of a movement. And what’s lost then is the ability to move forward against true opponents, whether as a coalition or as allies or even as an organization that understands strategically when to withdraw support rather than turn destructively inward against others. When the sole political strategy is the purity of an adoptee’s right to an identity and nothing else, compromise and nuance is obviously impossible.
I may be wrong about this, but I bet that, among MARM’s supporters and organizers, there are adult adoptees who, if the Missouri legislature passes the current bill as is, will be vetoed by their birth parents and left behind. That’s the art and nature of compromise in politics, potentially going against your own self-interests to benefit others. That’s something generally Bastard Nation cannot do and, for better or worse, may make it less and less relevant as the political fight over adoptee rights to their birth certificates continues.
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