In response to this piece in the Ethicist, I had a lot of thoughts and feelings, not only for the adoptee in this ethical dilemma but also for the adoptive mother and for birth mothers in general, who really do face such stigma.
I wrote a letter to the editor which was not published, but I do want to share it here, with the caveat that I kept my sights very focused on what I thought was the main problem with Mr. Appiah’s answer and did not address some of the other assumptions that also bear discussion. Maybe for future blogs.
In any case, writing this letter helped me get even clearer on how important the open records advocacy movement is and how necessary it is that triad members speak out and share our stories in order to help people understand more about this lifelong journey of adoption.
The Editor, New York Times
Dear Sir or Madam,
As an adoptee and a therapist who works with adult adoptees, I am moved to respond to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s answer in The Ethicist this week to the birth mother who gave up her child for adoption and does not want to have a relationship. I agree with his point that she is not required to have a relationship with her child now. But my main issue with his answer is that I believe adoptions should be structured to promote the best interests of the adopted person, rather than to privilege the interests of the parents, such as their privacy.
In many cases, the best interest of the adopted person at some point in their development is to access birth family and to have the chance to know more deeply who they are. In all cases, I would argue that adopted people should have the possibility of access. In this case, it turned out that this woman needed to know more about herself and her story. She and her adoptive mother lived with the emergence of that need and presumably her mother chose to honor her daughter’s need and process over an agreement made many years previously, at a time when we knew even less than we know now about the effects of closed adoption on adoptees as they move through life’s stages.
I’m not sure it is possible to convey to someone who has grown up always knowing their biological family what it is actually like not to know any blood relations. It is much deeper than not knowing your medical information or mere curiosity—it is a profound gap. I had a good life and a loving family and still I felt a very deep emptiness. Meeting my birth mother and other members of my biological family allowed me to make a qualitative shift in how I am in the world which has had profound effects in my life and in the lives that touch mine.
As a therapist, I see that adopted people who have access to information about their birth family and can make choices about what kind of information and contact to pursue seem to suffer less than their counterparts who do not have that access, even if the result is not a fairytale reunion.
Decisions were made by the adults to try to provide the best possible support for the child at the time of the adoption, without knowing what they will need later in life. Let’s make it possible for them to ask for what they need with greater openness, access to records and less stigma. Then the adopted person can take their place as an adult in this conversation.