Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) ended decades of secrecy around adoptions in New York on Thursday, signing a landmark reform bill to allow adult adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates.
Since 1936, that access has been barred without a court order. Advocates characterize New York’s rules as a human rights issue, and Cuomo echoed that in a statement.
“Where you came from informs who you are, and every New Yorker deserves access to the same birth records — it’s a basic human right,” Cuomo said in a statement. “For too many years, adoptees have been wrongly denied access to this information and I am proud to sign this legislation into law and correct this inequity once and for all.”
Starting January 15, adoptees over age 18 will be able to request their certified, long-form original birth certificates from the state or New York City, without needing to go before judges who they claim often refused their requests.
“The signing of this bill is a momentous step forward for adoptees across New York State,” said Assembly Member David Weprin (D) of Queens, the assembly bill’s lead sponsor, hours after Cuomo signed the bill.
New York is the tenth and largest state to grant adoptees equal access to birth certificates. Until now, they could only request “amended” birth certificates, created post-adoption and lacking birth names and locations. Those who wanted that information — and vital medical and ethnic history — were left to pursue arduous personal investigations.
But not everyone could afford commercial DNA tests and time-consuming archival research. And, the certificate represented much more to many adoptees.
“Providing adult adoptees with unrestricted access to their original birth certificate doesn’t threaten the integrity of adoptive families or the institution of adoption, rather it honors the truth and allows human beings to have what is rightfully theirs,” said April Dinwoodie, host of the adoption podcast Born in June, Raised in April.
The argument for unlocking original birth certificates has gained credence since the 1970s, with adoptee and birth parent groups like the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association, the Unsealed Initiative, and Bastard Nation pushing the idea. Yet, Catholic groups, and some adoptive parents and adoption agencies, long argued that doing so could violate privacy assurances made to birth mothers. That opposition gradually receded, while New York lawmakers remained skeptical.
Helene Weinstein (D), a Brooklyn assembly member whose Judiciary Committee blocked the proposal for years, expressed concern in 2015 about “the potential harm that can bring in terms of disruption of [birth mothers’] life, the reliving of a painful time in their life.”
In response, adoptees and their supporters vigorously touted evidence that privacy concerns distorted how often unmarried pregnant women were manipulated or pressured by adoption institutions. Research on the psychological and medical needs of both adoptees and birth parents also recommended against secrecy, they argued. Further, states like Oregon had opened birth certificate access, while adoption agencies nationwide embraced open practices, without serious negative consequences.
“Why should anybody through no fault of their own happen to be adopted in New York State, and not have a right to their original birth certificate, just like any non-adoptee?” said Weprin. “That particular piece of paper means more to the adoptee than to anyone else. They feel like it’s part of their DNA.”
Those arguments won over dozens of co-sponsors attached to the bill Cuomo signed.
How it Happened
Lawmakers considered different reform proposals, dividing advocates. Some bills would have kept the courts involved, or made birth certificate access contingent on consent from birth parents — compromises that have fractured reform coalitions in other states. Cuomo vetoed one such bill in 2017, claiming it would create a “cumbersome process … [which] may only add to an adoptee’s hardship.”
“The tide really turned in 2017 when the adoptee community gathered together to encourage Governor Cuomo to veto the regressive legislation that had passed,” said Annette O’Connell, the treasurer of the adoptee civil rights group Bastard Nation, and one of the leaders of a statewide advocacy partnership formed shortly after Cuomo’s veto.
The New York Adoptee Rights Coalition aligned sometimes-opposing groups behind one strategy. Meanwhile, the number of legislative co-sponsors in the statehouse ballooned.
“We were very clear we didn’t want to go out on a limb politically speaking until we were sure all of the organizations were together,” said State Senator Velmanette Montgomery (D) of Brooklyn, who was the senate sponsor of the bill and has supported the idea for decades. “And they themselves worked together to make that happen.”
The measure was approved by a wide, bipartisan margin in June — a so-called “clean” bill, free of compromises singling out adoptees for different treatment than non-adoptees.
Several lawmakers apologized for their past opposition from the statehouse floor, as advocates cheered from the gallery.
“Many of you know that this bill languished,” Brooklyn Assembly Member Joseph Lentol (D) told his colleagues. “I apologize for that today … The times have changed, and I am proud to say I have changed with them.”
Five months later, Cuomo finished the job.
“The enactment of [this bill] by Governor Cuomo is an Excelsior moment. It is a major, historic step in the ongoing effort to restore adoptee human and civil rights in New York and across the United States,” said Tim Monti-Wohlpart, the national legislative chair and New York State representative of the American Adoption Congress, in a statement with Senator Montgomery.
Weprin added: “This is probably one of the bills I’m most proud of in my 10 years in the assembly, because of the ups and downs.”
What Happens Next?
Weprin and O’Connell told The Chronicle of Social Change they expect the state to be inundated with adoptee applications early next year. Monti-Wohlpart estimates more than 600,000 people with adoptions finalized in New York will become newly eligible to see their certified, original birth certificates.
“We’ve already told people to anticipate backlogs and delays. Just in the past few hours [after Cuomo signed the bill] I’ve already received 475 emails,” O’Connell said.
Supporters also hope New York advocates’ success will create new momentum for adoptees in other states. That movement has grown slowly since Oregon passed a similar reform in the late 1990s, with Colorado and Hawaii doing so in the past five years.
The other states that afford unrestricted access to adoptees are: Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
“Every year we probably get a half-dozen states that try to address this. I think we’re going to see an uptick because of New York,” said Gregory Luce, an adoption attorney who runs the Adoptee Rights Law Center in Minnesota, and helped found the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition. “New York was a hub of adoption activity for decades, so this change will affect people all over the country.”
Luce sees opportunities to achieve similar reforms in Washington, D.C., and Texas.
“The challenge actually isn’t going to be states that require a court order like New York. Those are easier to change than those that have other kinds of restrictions we consider discriminatory,” he said, referring to requirements for birth or adoptive parents to approve the release of birth certificates. “It’s incredibly hard to undo those. That’s why within our advocacy world, you see hotly debated questions around compromising on this issue.”
Richard Stark, a New York-born adoptee who is now a state lawmaker in Florida, plans to push a compromise bill loosening some restrictions on adoptee access in his state.
“New York was so strict about this, I figured unless I turned 100 I would never get my certificate,” he told The Chronicle. “I am excited to see them get this done. [New York’s new law] might help a little bit,” with his effort in Florida, he added.
Joyce Bahr of the Unsealed Initiative first began pushing Albany for birth certificate access in the early 1990s. She said the recent presence of lawmakers who were adopted like Stark, or with experience in foster care, made a difference. On the day of the assembly vote, Syracuse representative Pam Hunter tearfully invoked her background as an adoptee in support of the bill, which she co-sponsored. She received an ovation from her colleagues.
“When the Governor’s office called me to let me know they actually signed the bill, I was numb, I have to be honest,” Hunter told The Chronicle.
Meanwhile, advocates say they’ll be watching to make sure the state Department of Health creates procedures that fulfill the spirit of the bill Cuomo just signed.
“Everything should be equal to the non-adopted for all intents and purposes. It should be the same fee and we should be able to apply in the same manner,” O’Connell said.
Note: This story was updated on November 19.