The Sealed Record Controversy

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For over half a century, closed adoption (i.e., with sealed records) was viewed by U.S. society as beneficial to everyone: The homeless child born out of wedlock was given a second chance in a new family, the infertile couple was able to become "real" parents, and the birth mother was free to go on with her life as if she had never had a child. Yet research conducted since the mid-1970s has consistently indicated that the secrecy in the closed-adoption system can often create lifelong psychological problems for everyone involved (Sorosky et al.).

Although adopted children comprise less than 5 percent of the population, the percentage of adopted children in mental-health facilities and residential treatment centers has been reported to be as high as 30 percent. Some researchers have found that adopted children score lower in academic achievement and social skills than the nonadopted, have a high incidence of learning disabilities, and display behavior characterized as impulsive, aggressive, and antisocial (Schecter et al.; Brodzinsky and Schecter; Brinich). Psychotherapists have postulated that an adopted child's perception of rejection and abandonment by the birth mother can cause low self-esteem. Ignorance of origins ("genealogical bewilderment") can lead a child to rebellion against the adoptive parents and society, and eventually to delinquency (Wellisch; Sants; Kirschner and Nagel).

Women who relinquish their infants often suffer a profound loss and experience lifelong difficulties. Like the child, they are encouraged by society to deny and repress the feelings that accompanied giving up their children for adoption. Some studies indicate that these women never forgive themselves. Some may feel they have no right to a happy marriage and other children, while others may try without success to have other children as replacements for the one that they relinquished (Deykin et al.; Millen and Roll).

The closed-adoption system also encourages adoptive parents to deny their grief at not being able to produce a child that will carry on their lineage. They are expected to conceal their unresolved conflicts over infertility as they pretend that adopting a child is the same as giving birth (Blum). Adoptive parents who are able to acknowledge the differences between an adoptive and birth family, instead of denying them, have been shown to have better communication and closer relationships with their children (Kirk).

The closed-adoption system tends to pit the right of the adopted child to know the identity of his or her birth parents against the right of the birth mother to confidentiality, and against the right of the adoptive parents to maintain exclusive parental roles. The National Council for Adoption (NCFA), a lobbying organization representing traditional adoption agencies, contends that sealed records protect the privacy of the birth mother, who was promised confidentiality (Caplan). A national birth-parent group, Concerned United Birth Parents (CUB), argues that the majority of birth mothers did not ask for confidentiality and in fact want to have knowledge of or some contact with the children they gave birth to. Until 1976, birth fathers had no rights, only responsibilities. At that time, the U.S. Supreme Court gave birth fathers equal right of consent with birth mothers in adoption arrangements.

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