Adoption dilemma: Do children have 'right' to know their birth parents?

Posted August 17, 2016

An Institute for Family Studies blog examines the "right" of children separated from a biological parent — by adoption, divorce or the simple lack of connection — and ponders whether children have a "right" to know them. (Deseret Photo)

A long list of life circumstances may separate a child from his or her biological parents, from foster care to adoption to divorce. In some cases, one parent may never have been part of the picture, as sometimes happens with single moms or with assistive reproductive technology that takes biological material from a person and uses it to facilitate a birth (think sperm donor).

But that doesn't do much to quell curiosity and sometimes strong emotions and longing on the part of the child. The Child Welfare Information Gateway notes that either or both birth parents and their children may search for each other; an estimated half of children who do not know a parent launch such a search at some point. The government-operated website also offers some practical tips and resources to aid in the search.

It's a topic that Helen Alvaré, law professor at George Mason University and the co-founder of Women Speak for Themselves, tackles in a post for the Institute for Family Studies.

"Different historical circumstance and contemporary sensibilities have led to different rules and practices for many of these different cases. In the adoption arena, for example, the general movement is toward more transparency respecting parental origins: there are more 'open adoptions' involving ongoing relationships between a child and his or her birth mother; and more state laws which allow children to learn the identity of their birth parents or at least some identifying information, albeit in some states birth parents can sign a no-contact veto in advance," Alvaré wrote. "Experts suggest that these developments point to the increased power of birth mothers in an adoption marketplace marked by relatively few available children, following both the legalization of abortion and the drastically reduced stigma of unmarried parenthood."

It's not a question without some concerns. Some fear that in an era of more open adoption, a woman might be reluctant to give up a child for adoption knowing that the child could seek her out later. The same is possible for someone contributing to artificial insemination. On the other hand, some individuals might welcome those possibilities. It all raises questions about policy and how one — or a society — decides.

Alvaré noted some scholars believe "the strength of the child's desires" have impact. "Even the federal government provides handbooks for the approximately 50 percent of adoptees it estimates are searching for their birth parents. And dozens of websites have arisen allowing the children of sperm donors to collaborate in order to discover their biological fathers," she wrote.

Researchers at University of Missouri have been looking at the connections made between the people who adopt and women who relinquish babies for adoption when adoptions are open. The new research looked at "adoption entrance narratives — the stories adoptive parents tell their adopted children about who they are and how they fit into the family unit."

In a news release on the study, assistant professor of communication Haley Horstman said the analysis of "the adoption entrance narratives of 165 adoptive parents (mostly mothers) revealed six themes: birth parents as family, chosen parents, forever, rescue, fate and adoption makes us family."

Adoptive families, the researchers found, are the "gatekeepers" who largely determine the scope of a relationship between birth parent and child, at least while the child is young.

“We see there is an indirect path between that joint communication and relational closeness, so that helps us understand that if the adoptive parents can have a relationship with the birth family, that really does drive the relationship with the child,” Horstman says. “Adoptive parents and birth parents don’t have to be the best of friends, but they should try to have a good relationship, even though it can be challenging.”

That research will be presented to the National Communication Association conference this fall.

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  • Aiden Audric Aug 17, 2016
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    I think that at a minimum, donors must be obligated to supply medical updates from incidents that are generally genetically caused. This can still be kept completely anonymous.
    Cancer, heart disease, etc. If a donor has a heart attack, the child should know.
    I know they pre-screen the donors' medical histories including their families, but that's a snapshot at the time - it doesn't reflect 20 years down the road...

    On the social side, that this article addresses, I think it's a good idea to leave avenues open so that either party can reach out and the other can choose to respond or not. Gets rid of the expensive, emotionally exhausting, and sometimes impossible hunt when one tries to find the other. A simple "here is their contact info" or "they still do not wish to be contacted" is much more humane.