Experts discuss adoption laws at Pitt

By Gretchen Andersen

Despite wide reform in American adoption practices, adult adoptees in some U.S. states are… Despite wide reform in American adoption practices, adult adoptees in some U.S. states are challenging laws that prevent them from learning the identities of their biological parents.

Elizabeth Samuels, a professor at the University of Baltimore Law School, discussed this issue and others that pertain to adoption yesterday afternoon during her lecture “Adoption, Identity and Confidentiality: The History of Closed Records.”

Samuels spoke to a crowd of about 50 people gathered in a classroom of the Barco Law Building, providing a detailed history of the traditions and legislation associated with adoption. She said one of the ongoing issues surrounding adoption practices today involves people’s ability to access their birth certificates.

Kansas, Alaska, Maine, Oregon, Alabama and New Hampshire are the few states that allow unrestricted access to birth records for adult adoptees, Samuels said. Pennsylvania’s birth records have been closed to adult adoptees since 1984, keeping some people from identifying their biological parents.

According to, adult adoptees must “petition the courts of the county their adoption took place” to receive their original birth certificate, and can only receive the document with permission from their birth parents.

State Rep. Curtis G. Sonney, R-Erie, and Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, have introduced House Bills 1968 and 1978, respectively, aimed at changing Pennsylvania’s policies regarding access to birth records.

Liberty Hultberg, Pennsylvania state representative for American Adoption Congress, said in an e-mail that House Bill 1978 is preferred by most in the adoption community. According to its brochure, American Adoption Congress is an “international network of individuals and organizations committed to promoting truth about adoption.”

The new legislation would allow people to obtain their original birth certificates that list their original names, birth parents’ names and place of birth, Hultberg, a member of Pitt’s English faculty, said.

She said it’s important for students and citizens to understand adoption issues, such as free access to birth records.

“There are so many long-standing misconceptions out there, such as that birth mothers want nothing to do with their relinquished children and want ‘protection’ from them,” Hultberg said. “Adopted persons are the only ones in our culture who do not retain the right to their birth certificates. It can be a hazard not only to identity formation but also health.”

During the lecture, Samuels said that from the 1850s to the 1920s states began to regulate adoptions. Before that time, many adopted children were not issued a birth certificate, making it nearly impossible to locate biological parents or family.

To give further perspective on the difficulties and joys of adoption, Samuels showed the 1946 movie “To Each His Own,” a drama centered around a woman who gave birth to an illegitimate son who was then adopted.

Samuels says she supports the right to nonrestrictive access because it is a “basic human right to know your identity.”

Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences sponsored the lecture along with the School of Law, Women’s Studies Program and the Pittsburgh Consortium for Adoption Studies. Marianne Novy, a professor in the English department, organized the lecture.