Thursday, May 28, 2009

Testimony - MA State Legislature 2001

Testimony before the Judiciary Committee
of the Massachusetts Legislature
24 May 2001
Reverend Thomas F. Brosnan
Re: S670

My name is Father Thomas Brosnan. I’m very happy to be here today at the request of Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao and the Committee to Access Birth Certificates and to represent, in some small way, all those who seek access to original birth certificates on behalf of adopted persons. As an adopted person who was relinquished into the closed adoption system in 1953, and whose original birth certificate was sealed and an amended certificate issued, I have an ardent interest in helping to undo what I believe is a basic injustice – the injustice of forbidding adopted persons access to the names given us at birth and keeping secret from us the names of those who gave us the gift of life.

As was mentioned before, I’m from Brooklyn, New York [I hope you can understand me] but have an indirect connection with Boston. My boss, the Bishop of Brooklyn, is Bishop Thomas Daily. Bishop Daily was born in Boston, or should I say Dorchester -- as he never tires of telling us in a very pronounced accent. My being a priest and an adopted person makes for an interesting combination, I think. In order for me to be ordained a Catholic priest in 1981, I had to obtain a special dispensation from the impediment of illegitimacy. According to the Code of Canon Law, which governed the Catholic Church at that time, no bastard could be ordained a priest without dispensation; and, further, no bastard could be ordained a bishop under any circumstance – though in the course of a 2000 year history, I’m sure a few slipped by.

Because of social mores in the early to mid part of the twentieth century, the stigma of bastardy or illegitimacy had a potentially devastating effect on the future prospects of the adopted-born-illegitimate. Thus, records began to be sealed in order to prevent discrimination against the illegitimate person who, good-intentioned legislators believed, should not be penalized for someone else’s behavior. And so in the 1940s or so, depending on the particular state, original birth certificates were sealed and amended certificates issued. Historians now tell us that, at first, the original certificates were not kept secret from those whose names appeared on the certificate. In other words the original intent made much more sense -- the privacy of the adopted person was assured without forever keeping from him/her his/her identity. And as for the birth mother – well, what point is there in keeping something she already knows a secret from her? Only later was secrecy imposed on the person meant to be protected, effectively penalizing him a second time by keeping from him his natal identity.

Orlando Patterson of Harvard, in studying the effects of slavery, would go so far as to say that “the root of slavery’s evil was not racism or even economic exploitation of people as property, but the ritual dehumanization that deprives people of their natal identity in family and society.” Patterson sees the mark of slavery in the one who suffers natal alienation. For the adopted the tragedy of loosing one’s family of origin can never be fully healed, but at least we can offer those who suffer it the consolation of knowing, by means of a true birth certificate, the genetic connections that makes us rooted in time and place, the fact that we have a real physical history.

Self-identification -- the process of knowing oneself through one’s environment yes -- but also through one’s natal heritage, is so vitally important to us as human beings. The renowned American Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, would offer this statement of theological equivalence. Murray wrote that “the complete loss of one’s identity is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms it is insanity.” The theological definition of hell is the loss of identity. By sealing original birth certificates, and then issuing what is euphemistically called amended certificates, the state contributes to that hell because, in effect, the state denies the adopted person his natal identity. My amended “birth” certificate states that I was born to my adoptive parents; and, further, that I was born in a hospital that my adoptive parents had never even set foot in. Amended certificates are creative fictions, outright lies, that result only in amended lives.

If you saw on television this past week the powerful and disturbing drama, Conspiracy, about the group of Nazi leaders who met -- in very business-like manner -- to solve “the Jewish problem,” as they put it -- you might agree with me that one of the fascinating aspects explored was the importance of language and how the perversion of language could directly lead to the perverse horror of the Holocaust. For instance, when the Nazi said “evacuation,” he really meant elimination. When he spoke of a “final solution,” he really meant the annihilation of an entire people. Amended certificates pervert the truth, they are blatant lies and, as documents of the state, not worthy of an honest government.

Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Faith and Reason would write that every human being can only know and love God by first knowing the fullness of truth about himself. “The journey toward truth,” the pope insists, “has unfolded as it must within the horizon of self-consciousness. It is found in both East and West, recorded in the sacred writings of Israel as well as in the Veda and the Avesta, in the writings of Confucious and Lao-tze, heard in the preaching of Tirthankara and the Budhha. It is a journey that leads us to heed the admonition carved on the temple portal at Delphi – the admonition to know thyself and to answer the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I and Where have I come from? Those who seek to answer thee questions,” the pope proclaims, “set themselves apart from the rest of creation as ‘human beings’ that is, as those who know themselves.”

Not all of us adopted will want to make contact with our families of origin, but we should not be treated in a manner different and discriminatory from our non-adopted peers who have access to their original birth certificates. On what grounds does the state tell us that our right to our natal identity through access to our original birth certificate is forfeit? On the grounds, it is argued, that confidentiality was promised the mothers who gave us birth. But we now have testimony by scores of birth mothers who tell us that confidentiality was never promised; and by some who say that, if it were, they wouldn’t want it anyway. And, further, there is a real question whether confidentiality was ever promised in law. Take my case for example: The agency that facilitated my adoption told me that no identifying information could be given me because my birth mother was promised confidentiality. Yet, when my adoption was finalized by the court, the court issued adoption papers to my adoptive parents with my birth name on the adoption papers – that is with my birth mother’s surname on the papers. If confidentiality was promised, as is alleged, then how could the court -- while promising confidentiality to my birth mother -- write her name on adoption papers given to strangers. Evidence, I would suggest, that confidentiality among the parties to the adoption was never intended in the first place.

I’ve been active in the adoption reform movement for some 15 years now and have spoken across the country about the ways in which adoption impacts the life of all members of the triad throughout their lives. This can be an emotional issue – especially when someone who is not part of the adoption triad hears me say that I think we should have truth and openness in adoption. The objections come from decent people who quickly come up with a list of what-ifs. But what-if you find your mother was a prostitute or that she’s been living in a mental asylum? What-if your father is a congressman or a priest or a bishop– won’t you ruin his life? There is deep emotion on both sides of this issue because it touches on something so fundamental to our humanity – the meaning of life and love, of identity and destiny. You as legislators have the responsibility to listen and discern. I would urge you, however, to consider your greater responsibility: to transcend the emotional aspects of the issue and embrace your primary duty – to seek what is lawful based on reason and right.

So here’s the question: If the right to natal identity is a basic human and civil right, then does nor every citizen of this commonwealth, regardless of how he came into the world, have the right of access to his original birth certificate?

Honorable representatives of the people of Massachusetts, I am here today to plead with you to return to us adopted adults the right that is granted every other adult citizen – the right of access to our original birth certificates – the document that establishes our natal identity, the truth of our origins. I am here simply to say that we adopted seek to know who we are and where we came from. We are they who seek to know themselves. We adopted are human beings too (cf. John Paul II, Faith and Reason).

Finally it is, I believe, evidence of the mark of illegitimacy -- whether acknowledged or not -- that one can never fully present himself -- that makes me end this testimony on a note of humble supplication rather than as a righteous demand. And so permit me to say quietly, without evincing the rage one might feel after having endured the theft of his most treasured possession -- to say quietly, yes -- but with complete confidence and utter conviction that my natal identity belongs to me.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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