DNA Testing vs Birth Records: Which One Provides More Privacy?

For decades, adoptees have been denied the right to their own birth records, and as a result, denied the opportunity to learn about their origins. Many false claims about birth parent privacy or anonymity have been made as reasons to continue to deny equal rights to adult adopted persons. However, in the last decade, the availability and affordability of consumer DNA testing through sites such as Ancestry and 23 and Me, has opened up new avenues for adoptees from states with sealed records to find out where they came from. But, using DNA testing in an attempt to discover one’s origins is not without issues, one of which being the lack of privacy.

If you have never taken a consumer DNA, let me explain how it works. First, you purchase a kit from one of the consumer DNA testing sites and upon receipt, spit into the tube, and mail it off to be tested. Then you wait. It usually takes the lab a few weeks to perform it’s analysis. Once complete, your results are uploaded to the site and you will be notified that your results are available! At that point, you may be filled with excitement or anxiety as you click to link to find out what your DNA has to say, especially if you are an adoptee with so many unknowns.

Many people are aware that once they log in they will find out what percentage Colombian, or Irish, or Japanese they may be, but not everyone is aware that in addition to identifying your ethnicity mix, you are also matched with DNA relatives who have also taken a DNA test through that same company. (There are also platforms that allow DNA results from various companies to be compared, such as GEDMatch, if that is desired.) For most people, when they view their list of DNA matches, they will see some combination of 2nd-4th cousins listed. It is less common to log on and find that you’ve immediately been matched to a 1st cousin, sibling, or better yet… a parent! (Although this would be like hitting the jackpot for most adoptees.) Without being directly linked to a parent and having little to no knowledge of your origins, how do you use these DNA matches to find out where you belong in the family tree?

Well, you have to start shaking the branches and ringing the phone lines. You will need to contact some of your matches and hope you can get some of them to respond with helpful information. Even though some of them want to help they do not have the information you need, so they aren’t really sure where you belong. They may then begin to call their sister or aunt, or another cousin, or grandma asking about any information that they might have on a baby from the family that was placed for adoption. If that person doesn’t know either or has vague memories of something like this happening, they may call another cousin or uncle or brother. Before you know it, the whole family may be in on trying to discover where in the world you came from and who gave up a baby! This is obviously not a very private or personal way to attempt to learn your biological origins, but this is what is forced upon adoptees when states refuse to allow adoptees their own records.

If the concern for adoptees and biological parents is privacy, then allowing an adopted person the right to directly obtain their own birth record is the key. With this scenario, the only contact required is between the adopted person and the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH).

Giving equal rights to adult adopted persons means more privacy, not less. It is that simple. Or as my kids would say, “Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy!”

The Myth of the Promise

One of the most common myths in open records legislation is that “birth records can not be opened to adoptees because birth parents were promised privacy or anonymity.” 

However, that’s just not true. It’s a MYTH.

In Georgia, the Surrender of Parental Rights form has been used since the Adoption Act of 1977 went into effect on January 1, 1978. Adoption agencies, attorneys, churches, and states have been using the exact same document since.1 (Prior to 1978 in Georgia, birth mothers did not have to sign any official surrender documents.)

Take this surrender document (pictured below) signed by a birth mother in early 1979. This mother is agreeing to surrender her child to the Georgia State Department of Human Resources, Division of Children and Family Services. In the document, she agrees to surrender the child to the State, not interfere in the management of the child’s life, and relinquish all rights and claims to the child. Nowhere in the document does it state that anonymity is promised or even an option for birth parents. It does not assure the birth parent secrecy from the child, potential adoptive parents, or society in any way. If anyone at any time made an implication of such, they did so without any legal standing.

The Surrender of Parental Rights also did not guarantee that the child would be adopted. The child could have remained in foster care until they reached the age of majority or been cared for under a legal guardianship instead of an adoption. It is not until the finalization of an adoption that a child’s original birth certificate would be sealed and replaced with an amended post-adoption birth certificate. Up until the point of adoption, the original birth certificate containing the birth parent(s) name(s) was available the same as for any other person born in Georgia.

Additionally, when an adoptee requests information from the Georgia Adoption Reunion Registry (a service to birth parents, adopted persons, adoptive parents and siblings who are affected by adoptions finalized in Georgia) they will give the adoptee the name of the birth parent if they are deceased and locate the obituary for them. Adoptees can also request a death certificate from the state for a deceased birth parent. So if the State of Georgia promised birth mothers anonymity, then why is a state-contracted organization giving out the birth parents’ names?

In Georgia, the only way for adopted persons to obtain their original birth certificate and any birth records is to hire an attorney to petition the State for their sealed documents. It costs adoptees thousands of dollars and a lot of time. Even upon doing so, there is no guarantee that the records will be given to them as it is up to each individual judge. Some are successful in their pursuit and the judge orders their records to be opened and provided to them. If the State of Georgia promised anonymity to birth parents, then the State would not be able to provide birth certificates and records upon petition without consent from those they promised anonymity to. But the fact is, anonymity was never promised to birth parents. Rather, it was forced upon them by the sealing of records. 

We need laws that exist based on facts and not the myths that have long endured. It is time for the State of Georgia to remove the undue burden placed upon adopted persons to obtain their original birth certificate allowing them to acquire it via the same method and fee as all other persons born in Georgia.

1. In 2018, the right to withdraw surrender was changed from 10 days to 4 days.

Additional Resources:
Current GA Surrender of Rights Form (2021)

Altering the Original Birth Certificate

Not many, including adoptees, know that when an adoption is finalized, their original birth certificate is permanently altered by the State of Georgia. 

When Courtney Humbaugh, an adult adoptee, petitioned the Georgia court system in 2020 and received her original birth certificate later that year, she was shocked to discover the changes. Immediately after receiving her original birth certificate, she compared it to the one she had been using her whole life. 

“The city in which I was born (Augusta) was totally changed to Atlanta where I was adopted,” Humbaugh said. “Along with that, the hospital and attending physician were deleted in the altered version. The information about it being my birth mother’s first pregnancy was deleted, and my birth parents’ names listed as birth parents were changed to my adoptive parents’ names.” 

“When I realized all of the changes had been made to my original document, I had this intense feeling that altering one’s original birth certificate, the only “official” document that tells us about our start in this world, was so unethical and really just plain wrong,” Humbaugh told us. That’s when she became involved with Georgia Alliance for Adoptee Rights.

Georgia is one of only a few states that alters the birth location on a child’s birth certificate once the adoption is finalized. Adoptive parents, who are forthcoming with information, may tell the child they were born in X city, but their birth certificate says Y city. Also, all adoption records finalized in the state of Georgia are altered and sealed, regardless of any agreements for contact and communication made between birth parents and adoptive parents. 

“There are so many adoptees who want their original birth certificate and records and it makes total sense. It’s so hard to separate fact from fiction when it involves our beginnings. We’re told one thing, but documents tell another story,” Humbaugh said. “Until we petition the courts for our records, we don’t really have the facts. And we shouldn’t have to go through that lengthy and expensive process.” 

Humbaugh utilized the legal services of Lila Bradley with Clairborne, Fox, Bradley and Goldman in Atlanta to petition the Georgia courts. For more information, listen to Humbaugh share more details about obtaining her original birth certificate here.