EACH ADOPTION case begins with heartbreak and happiness--the anguish of a biological mother giving up a child and the profound joy of an adoptive couple finding one. If the child has any divided feelings, they don't come to the surface for many years, but sometimes adult adoptees want to know more about their biological parents. In such an emotionally precarious situation, what are the rights of adoptees to information, the rights of the biological parents to privacy and the rights of the adoptive parents to the confidentiality and security they thought were guaranteed?

Until the mid-'60s, adoption records across the country were firmly sealed. Now there is pressure to open all records, and in three states--Kansas, Pennsylvania and Alabama--it is possible for adult adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates with the names of their biological parents. A more sensible approach, and one that takes into consideration the rights and feelings of other parties in the adoption, is the establishment of registries where sensitive information can be exchanged only with mutual consent. Ten states have established registries, New York just a few weeks ago. The New York statute allows an adoptee over 21 to obtain information about his biological mother only if that woman consented to being identified by filing with the registry. In the case of adoptions completed before April 1984, the consent of the adopting parents is also required; after that date, adopting parents will be on notice that grown children can obtain the information without their consent. The New York law also guarantees all adult adoptees the right to non-identifying information--religion, ethnic, racial and medical background about biological parents-- even without mutual consent.

In some of the other states with registries, adoptive parents have no part in the procedure, since only adult children can use the service. In others, the biological father, if he had been a party to the initial adoption, must be consulted. In some jurisdictions adoptees who are 18 years old can apply for information; in others, they must be 25. None of the jurisdictions in this area has an adoption registry, though courts can, in medical emergencies, for example, open sealed records and contact biological parents.

Many adult adoptees will never want to use the registry; many natural parents will never consent to being contacted. And when reunions occur, some will be loving and others disastrous. But an orderly procedure requiring the consent of people whose lives will be altered dramatically by revelation is certainly preferable to a wholesale opening of records that were compiled with the understanding that they were irrevocably sealed. Registries are a sensible and humane approach to a sensitive and emotional subject.