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Published Sunday July 26th, 2009 at 1:56pm

Original Article by Jeff Gammage

Michelle Edmunds was born in Chicago, placed in foster care as a toddler, adopted at 10, and raised in Canada.

It took her years to find her biological mother, and a decade moreto locate her father, because she faced a particular impediment to hersearch:

Unlike everyone else born in the United States, people who wereadopted are commonly denied access to their original birth certificates.

The effort to open those records - closed in 44 states, includingPennsylvania and New Jersey - constitutes what adult adoptees call thenation's last civil rights battle. Today, that fight comes toPhiladelphia, when adoptees from around the country are expected toconverge and protest at the National Conference of State Legislaturesconvention.

"Why is it against the law for me to know who my people are, who mycousins are?" asked Edmunds, 46, host of "The Adoption Show," aCanadian podcast and Web site.

Today that question stands at the fore as adoption becomes morecommon. Access to birth records ranks among the most controversial andemotional issues in the field.

For many adoptees, the desire to obtain their birth certificates isseparate from deciding whether to search for biological relatives. Theyfeel that, as a specific class of Americans, they're beingdiscriminated against.

In the United States, Depression-era laws created "amended birthcertificates" that replaced the names of biological parents with thoseof adoptive parents, symbolic of a time when adoption was a shamefulsecret for all involved: for unwed mothers, scorned by society; foradoptive parents, unable to conceive; for the children, bastards in asociety that prized marriage.

At the time, experts believed that permanent separation was best for everyone.

But during the last 50 years, adoption has become an event to becelebrated, not hidden. Openness and contact among birth parents,adoptive parents, and children now are typical.

Yet, though society has changed, the laws generally have not. Andmany respected, well-known national organizations oppose givingadoptees access to birth records.

"We support open adoption, but not open records," said ChuckJohnson, chief operating officer of the National Council for Adoption,a well-known advocacy and policy group. "There are people who believed,in generations past, that their rights of privacy were protected. . . .It's not right to retroactively take that away from them."

Providing original birth certificates means adoptees could contactbirth parents without invitation or warning, Johnson said. And thatcould disrupt lives. Some women never told their husbands that theysurrendered a child. Others want nothing to do with children conceivedthrough rape or incest.

The council would support a system in which contact would bemutually agreed upon and arranged through a government intermediary orregistry, he said.

In the meantime, others share the council's stance.

The antiabortion National Right to Life opposes granting access tobirth information, as do some chapters of abortion-rights PlannedParenthood. Some ACLU chapters are opposed, citing privacy rights.

Privacy clearly is a concern.

In New Jersey, an Atlantic City woman is suing the state for $1million after being approached by a daughter she surrendered 30 yearsago, a child conceived by rape, according to the Philadelphia DailyNews. She claims state authorities provided personal information thatenabled her daughter to show up at her door.

New Jersey has long been a battleground, with such people as StateSen. Diane Allen and celebrity adoptee Darryl McDaniels of the hip-hopgroup Run-DMC lobbying for openness. The state ACLU, Bar Association,and the Catholic Conference have pushed to keep records closed.

The latest open-records bill passed the Senate in 2008 but failed to reach the Assembly floor.

If the fight for access is the last civil rights battle, it's goingawfully slowly. Alaska, Oregon, Kansas, Alabama, New Hampshire, and, asof this year, Maine are the only states where adult adoptees haveunrestricted access to their original birth records.

"These [bills] have just died in committee in so many states," said Ann Fessler, author of The Girls Who Went Away,the story of single women compelled to surrender their babies in theage before legal abortion. Legislators often hear "conflicting kinds ofreports about what was promised to birth mothers, and they think,'Leave well enough alone,' " she said.

But it's often unclear exactly what was promised by whom and whetherthose pledges have any legal validity. Moreover, Fessler said, thereality is that many adoptees and birth parents already are searchingfor one another, aided by the Internet.

Some come away with new extended families. Others find nothing. Somespend years working through painful pasts with relatives they barelyknow.

"Questions come up a lot in relationships. Adults can work themout," Fessler said. "The government should not be involved in buildingwalls against certain people meeting each other and knowing each other."

About 100 adoptees plan to attend the Philadelphia protest,sponsored by the Adoptee Rights Coalition. They are to gather nearIndependence Hall and march to the Convention Center to meet withlegislators.

They intend to point out that adoption records haven't always been closed.

In the early 1900s, states stamped "illegitimate" on thecertificates of children born to single mothers. That stigma ledauthorities to seal those certificates, but only until adoptees reachedadulthood.

After World War II, states began to seal records permanently basedon the recommendation of social-work organizations that considered acomplete break between parent and child emotionally beneficial to both.

Advocates of openness say that today more than feelings are atstake. Finding biological relatives can provide important healthinformation.

Cathy Robishaw's search for her birth mother led not to a joyful orsad reunion, but to a death certificate. Later, when Robishaw developedsymptoms of the same type of cancer that killed her mother, she knewnot to dismiss what her body was telling her and sought medical help.

"Ultimately," said Robishaw, who led the charge that opened recordsin Maine, "getting one's original birth certificate isn't about medicalhistory and it isn't about reunion. That piece of paper belongs to me."

Adult adoptees will tell you: It's not that they don't love theiradoptive parents. They do. Or that they want to hurt the people whoraised them. They don't.

They want to learn how they came to be, to see whether they havebiological brothers or sisters. Information as basic as a surname cantell them something about their origins.

Edmunds, the Canadian podcast host, found her birth mother in 1996,eight months before the woman died. Ten years later she found herfather in Wyoming. He wants to move to Canada, but Edmunds can'tsponsor him because she can't show they're related: Her birthcertificate is sealed in Illinois.

"The government needs to stay out of our business," she said. "Who are they to tell me who I can have a relationship with?"