Bill Would Give Adoptees Access to Medical History, Info About Birth Parents

Andrew Kitchenman | February 11, 2014 | Health Care, More Issues
Supporters and opponents of measure agree on importance of access to biological family’s health info

At a time when the understanding and treatment of inherited disorders has grown by leaps and bounds, one group has not had access to any information about their family’s medical history – people whose biological parents’ names were sealed when they were adopted.

New Jersey residents in this situation could gain access to their medical history, along with their biological parents’ names, under a bill that has been debated for 34 years and is again advancing in the Legislature.

Both supporters and opponents of the measure, (A-1259/S-873), say they support giving more access to medical histories.

The bill would allow birth parents to indicate that they don’t want the adopted resident to contact them, but would require those who do indicate this preference to provide a family medical history and encourage them to update it on a regular basis.

“The medical records are so important,” said Peggi Sturmfels, who was adopted in the early 1950s. While she learned her biological mother’s name, she didn’t try to contact her, based on what she was told by another relative. It wasn’t until her 40-year-old daughter had cancer that she learned from a biological sister that both her biological mother and sister had similar cancers at similar ages.

Opponents of the measure want to allow birth parents to have their names redacted from the adoptees’ birth certificates and to let them provide medical histories through an intermediary, without identifying information.

The opposition is strongest among opponents of abortion rights, who believe that some women would choose to have an abortion instead of putting their babies up for adoption if they didn’t have a guarantee of confidentiality.

New Jersey Catholic Conference Executive Director Patrick R. Brannigan said the conference supports giving full access to medical histories, as well as cultural and social histories, as long as identifying information is not included.

This position is rejected by bill supporters, who note that very few women putting their babies up for adoption choose to keep their names private and the low number of birth parents who want to continue to keep their names private when their adult biological children seek them out.

They also reject the restrictions on complete access to birth certificates and say access to the names of birth parents is a civil right.

The bill has had a tortured history since it was first introduced in 1980. Its most recent incarnation was a version passed by both legislative houses but conditionally vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie in 2011. Like opponents of the current version of the bill, Christie wanted to insert language that would allow birth parents to keep their names confidential.

A 1979 change in state law has provided those adopted through closed adoptions since that year with a family medical history filled out by the birth parents. However, bill supporters note that this history can become decades out of date and argue that without access to their birth certificates, they will never have accurate and ongoing access to this family information.

Those adopted through closed adoptions before 1979 must seek a court order to gain access to their birth certificates, and judges can deny such a request if the person isn’t facing a medical emergency.

The current bill was released by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on January 27 and the Assembly Human Services Committee yesterday. The primary Assembly sponsor is Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Bergen and Hudson).

“It’s so important and critical to know your birth background and your medical history, which with today’s advancements in medicine, is so important with preventive healthcare and long-term healthcare,” Prieto told the Assembly committee yesterday.

Bill supporters are hopeful that Christie will have changed his mind if the legislation makes it to his desk again, as more organizations – including Catholic groups – have supported similar legislation in other states.

If the governor hasn’t changed his mind, bill supporters said they won’t accept the changes suggested by opponents and are prepared to fight on for more years to see their preferred version – with access to the birth parents’ names on the birth certificates – enacted.