An Oregon appeals court unanimously upheld the nation's first voter-passed law giving adopted people access to their birth records, and the state began processing their applications today.
A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals said mothers who put their children up for adoption have no constitutional guarantee of privacy, despite promises they received that their identities would be protected.
Opponents of the law had argued that it would subject birth mothers to harassment by children they gave up years ago, and they asked the appeals court to reconsider its ruling. They also could appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court.
The appeals court lifted an injunction barring the state Health Division from releasing birth documents.
As of today, 1,468 Oregonians have applied to obtain their birth certificates, and the first certificates could be mailed out by the end of next week, said Edward Johnson, registrar for vital records at the state Health Division.
If another injunction is granted, the process would stop in place, he said.
"This is wonderful news for all of the people out there who have had one wall after another put in front of them all their lives," said Helen Hill, an adoptee.
The National Council for Adoption said the ruling is a betrayal of birth mothers who gave up their children for adoption with the understanding that they would remain anonymous.
"The state of Oregon is saying to all of the people who were promised privacy in the past, 'We were lying to you,' " said Bill Pierce, spokesman for the District-based group.
The law passed with 57 percent of the vote in November 1998; it never took effect because of a lawsuit by several anonymous birth mothers. A trial judge upheld the law in July, but the order preventing the release of records remained in effect during the appeal.
"At no time in Oregon's history have the adoption laws required the consent of, or even notice to, a birth mother on the opening of adoption records or sealed birth certificates," the appeals court said in an opinion written by Judge Paul De Muniz.
The case has been watched nationally by adoption advocates. In September, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld a 1996 state law giving adoptees access to their records. Just three other states--Alaska, Kansas and Delaware--have opened adoption records.
The Oregon law allows adoptees 21 or older to obtain their original birth certificates, which often contain the birth parents' names.
A 33-year-old woman who does not want to be contacted by the daughter she gave up for adoption seven years ago lamented the ruling: "It's open season on birth mothers. . . . If somebody were to show up at the door, and one of my other children were confronted with this, it would be traumatic."
But Hill said birth mothers remain in control.
"If she gets a phone call or a letter, she can still say, 'I don't want to see you,' " Hill said.