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  • Falsified Birth Certificates

    Brice M. Clagett

    Published Date : February 1990
    At the October 1989 Board meeting, the NEHGS Trustees voted to become involved in seeking reconsideration of several governmental practices that seriously impair genealogical knowledge, in addition to depriving people of medical information that can be vitally important to their health.

    The first of these is a problem that has been around for several decades: the state-mandated concealment of adoption records and denial of the right of adopted children to know their biological parentage. This practice has been frequently challenged in recent years, with varying degrees of success, and the efforts of many adopted children to learn the truth have received widespread publicity. But the Uniform Adoption Act -- a product of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, whose model statutes have great influence on state legislatures -- still provides that adoption records are to be kept sealed and “are subject to inspection only upon consent of the Court and all interested persons; or in exceptional cases, only upon an order of the Court for good cause shown.”

    This policy puts a heavy burden on an adopted child seeking to learn his or her biological background.  Surely the burden should be reversed: an adopted child, at least one of adult age, should be presumed to have good cause to learn who he or she is if he or she wants to, and only in “exceptional cases” should that information be denied.  Certainly there can be no reasonable basis for denying access to the facts if the biological parents are dead.

    From a genealogical point of view, the current practice -- which typically involves the issuance of a birth certificate representing the adopted parents as the biological parents -- is clearly insidious. Even though an adopted child is usually told privately, at some point, that he or she is adopted, the biologically false certificate remains in the public records.  It is estimated today that about 2% of the U.S. population are adopted children.  A century from now, descendants of these people who are tracing their genealogy will encounter the false certificates and may well have no reason to disbelieve them.  They will thus be deceived into tracing their lineage back to hosts of people to whom in fact they are wholly unrelated. Even worse, the existence of these false certificates in significant numbers will necessarily introduce uncertainty into any genealogical research by anyone: how will any researcher he able to know with confidence that the records he is relying on are not fictitious?

    It would perhaps be overreaching to argue that government has an obligation to facilitate genealogical research. But it seems a modest, entirely tenable proposition that government has an obligation to refrain from affirmatively and deliberately deceiving people about their ancestry.

    The current practice of falsification is relatively recent.  Damage has already been done, but it can be contained if the needed changes are made soon.  At the very least, the law should require that every falsified birth certificate should bear a symbol or notation indicating that it is such, so that future generations can gain access to time facts, or at least will know that the altered certificate cannot be relied on for genealogical purposes.

    For a number of reasons, the time seems ripe for a major assault on the current practice.  Such an assault is already well under way by adopted children and groups they have formed, but genealogical organizations like NEHGS have not until now become involved.  Genealogical research has never been so popular as it is today, and its practitioners should be ripe for mobilization once they realize the long-term implications of birth-certificate falsification. Do we really want our great-great-grandchildren to be uncertain that they are descended from us because there is no way to know whether their grandparents or great-grandparents were really the children of the people the official records say they were?

    The practice of concealment is based on attitudes of the 1930s, 40s and 50s that, mercifully, are diminishing if not dying.  One is the hangover Victorian notion that it is an ineffable disgrace to be an “illegitimate” child or the parent of one.  Another is the “brave-new-world” assumption of the early 20th century that nature (environment) is everything that makes a person what he or she is, and that biology is insignificant (and probably snobbish as well).  This insidious liaison of prudery and Marxism has dominated adoption policy long enough.

    Bureaucratic habits, once established, die hard.  The precedent of birth-certificate falsification has recently been extended to the novel realms of artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, which can result in a woman’s giving birth to a child whose [23] biological father is a man other than her husband, and surrogate motherhood, where a woman bears a child conceived by artificial means and surrenders it to the “intended” parents, only one of whose genetic material is involved.  The National Conference’s Uniform Status of Children of Assisted Conception Act follows the adoption precedent in calling for falsified birth certificates, and in forbidding access to the real records other than “in exceptional cases.”  The Uniform Parentage Act seems likewise to contemplate false certification in artificial-insemination cases, and does not even clearly provide for retention of, let alone access to, records revealing the identity of the biological father.

    While these techniques are unlikely to become as statistically common as adoption, in a sense they pose an even greater threat to genealogy, as well as to health.  Human nature being what it is, it is likely that a child conceived by one of these techniques will never be told about it.  The child -- unlike most adopted children -- is thus likely to be wholly unsuspecting that one of his or her biological parents is someone other than the parent by whom he or she was raised.  The consequences for genealogical research will, after a few generations, be devastating -- and again not only for descendants of such children, but for all of our descendants.  For how can any researcher in the future be sure that any ancestral line established by official records is not spurious?  Again, government may have no obligation to facilitate our researches, but surely it has an obligation not willfully and deliberately to deceive us.  In all these situations, as in the case of adoption, there may be excellent reasons for treating a child legally as the offspring of “intended” parents.  But it does not follow that the biological facts must be falsified or suppressed.

    As noted, the Trustees have determined to grapple with these problems.  A letter will shortly be sent to the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, expressing our concerns and inviting a dialogue.  A solution will not be easy, but it ought to be possible for human ingenuity to achieve one that accommodates all legitimate interests.  The Society solicits the views and participation of groups and individuals that share our concerns.

    Brice McAdoo Clagett, a member of the Board of Trustees, is a native of Washington, D.C. and a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. He is a partner of Covington & Burling, 1201 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., P.O. Box 7566, Washington, DC 20044, and has written on legal, historical and genealogical topics.

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