A birth certificate is a document that sounds like it should be pretty self-explanatory - a record of the specifics of a baby’s birth, put together shortly after she was born and not changed since. For children who are adopted, though, the information found on birth certificates isn’t nearly so simple. Children who are adopted by American parents, both domestically and from abroad, are issued new birth certificates listing their adoptive parents when their adoptions (and, in some cases, citizenship) are finalized.
Amended birth certificates generally only change the name of the parents and, in cases where the child’s name is changed, the child. But in some cases, other information might change as well - these changes might include the birth location, if the child is being adopted in a different state than the one they were born in, and, in some rare cases, the birth date.
The practice of amending birth certificates and sealing records in the U.S. has roots that run deep, and only some of these roots actually have the good of the adopted child in mind.
One influence on these practices is the idea that simplicity of paperwork is a good thing, since having one set of parents - the parents with custody - listed on all paperwork, including the birth certificate, cuts down on confusion - like when, say, parents enroll a child in school.
However, other pressures for amended birth certificates and sealed records include a historical stigma against unmarried mothers and a general attitude that there must be something shameful about birth parents - though some of these beliefs have, thankfully, significantly changed over time.
Though one of the arguments for amended birth certificates is simplicity, many adoptees find that amended birth certificates can make their lives more complicated, since name changes and birth certificates filed significantly after birth can make getting important documents like a passport or driver’s license difficult. Adoption paperwork does not always create these complications, but it has been known to happen, so keeping as many early records as possible as proof of your child’s identity may protect her from such complications later.
In certain states, adoptees can obtain copies of their records by requesting them from the state when they’re 18 or older. Other states may have some restrictions around the process of getting records or may only unseal the records of adoptees between certain time periods.
States with unsealed record policies, according to the American Adoption Congress:
States with partially unsealed records or restrictions on records (restrictions can include a certain range of adoption years or birth parents’ ability to opt out of being listed):
Closed records of birth for adoptees, even into adulthood, remain controversial and disputed. Arguments against sealed records range from the personal - the feeling that the amended certificate is a lie and that the presence of the lie casts adoption in a negative light - to the practical - adoptees with no access to their birth parents’ identities have no way to seek out family medical history.
Over time, legislation for more openness about adoptees’ original birth certificates and birth information has emerged on a state-by-state, or, in the case of California, a county-by-county basis. States are passing legislation to unseal records fairly regularly, but there is no national legislation guaranteeing that adoptees have the right to know their own genetic histories. Adoptees’ rights groups argue that this is a mistake and that the right to know one’s own identity and genetic history is a human right.
So what does this mean for your baby? At the moment, if she is healthy, maybe not much, although it’s important to do all you can to secure as accurate and complete a family medical history as possible, just in case anything changes. In the future, though, she may have questions about her original documents, and it may be a good idea to see if you can get a copy, through the adoption agency or from her birth parents, to keep for her when she’s older. You may only ever need her amended birth certificate for official paperwork, but her original birth certificate is an important piece of her past that she may want to have access to later.