Baby Love Child banner

Guest blog- He’s Not “Legit:” Adam Pertman’s adoption marketing is an ongoing threat to human rights

Today’s post is a special guest blog written by my partner, Mike Doughney, originally posted to his personal blog. Just to clarify, Mike is not an adopted person. He often describes his relationship to adoption as “Sleeps with Bastard.”


ebd-records-bullshit-updateI think it’s really bad form to start off a post with a dictionary definition, but unfortunately there seems to be a lot of people out there who are obviously not clear on the basics.

human rights, pl.n. The basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled…

There’s that word in the middle: “all.” Human rights, if they are rights, apply to all people. A simple concept, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, when it comes to the world of adoption, various camps – primarily, the institutions that make up the adoption industry itself – have a lot to gain from complicating the simple things.

Let’s take Adam Pertman as today’s rather timely example. Pertman is the Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Institute, which I’ll call “EBD” for short. What is this “Institute?” Take a look at their own website, and you’ll see what spawned it – an adoption agency, Spence-Chapin. Heck, the “Institute” is even named for the onetime president of this adoption agency:

The Adoption Institute was established in 1996 through the initiative of the Board of Spence-Chapin Services to Families and Children, which saw a need for an independent and unbiased adoption research and policy organization. Evan B. Donaldson was a member of the Spence-Chapin Board of Directors continuously from 1977 on, serving as president from 1986 until her death in 1994.

I think it’s quite appropriate to laugh at those words, “independent and unbiased.” The EBD’s sole business is the promotion of adoption, providing backing for adoption agencies in general, while Spence-Chapin is still featured prominently on the front page of the EBD website as an “organizational partner.”

As for Adam Pertman, his book and his rhetoric hammer the same themes over and over, that the practice of adoption “for growing a family” must be somehow considered completely normal, societally normalized. His function is that of advocacy from the point of view of the satisfied customer. The problem with this is that such advocate-customers often seek to validate their past decisions by preserving and promoting the business that supplied them with a product or service. It is secondary to advocate-customers if the business is found to be doing harm in the process of providing that service, or is detrimental to the people who are integral to that product, only that the business continue to function to serve even more customers just like Pertman. Such advocate-customers can also be completely without a clue about details that are vitally important to others affected by such a business – in this case, Pertman ignores the actual details and history of the process of actually opening birth certificates to adoptees through legislation.

That the “product” here involves real live human children should in itself raise a few red flags. That Adam Pertman, an adopter and adoption promoter, is barging in and opportunistically seizing upon the language of adoptee rights that has historically been primarily the domain of adopted people themselves, crafted by the adoptee rights movement, should also raise some red flags, particularly among exactly those adoptees.

Adam Pertman has had a decade or so to appropriate the language of adoptee  rights for his own uses, making some inroads among some adoptees and adoption-related groups who are, inexplicably, supporting the latest spectacle created by Pertman and the EBD, including the AAC and CUB. Problem is, every time Pertman opens his mouth, he takes a simple issue – access to birth certificates for all adopted people, no exceptions – and complicates it beyond all recognition, subverting it so that, in practice adoptees end up being left behind. Pertman does not act as if he was concerned with a matter of gaining civil rights for each and every member of an affected group, which is not resolvable through legislation that makes that civil right conditional on the permission of others.

His lack of concern for actual rights is necessitated by his role as a marketer. His role is to promote the EBD and adoption through a number of methods. The promotional method that most clearly hampers adoptee rights is through EBD’s repeated practice of submitting and presenting testimony to state legislatures whenever legislation involving access to birth certificates is being considered.  Unfortunately, Pertman and EBD never address the merits or faults of the particular proposed legislation, but have merely carried and repeated from state to state the same canned presentation for the past five years or more. Testimony by Adam Pertman does not accomplish the actual work of convincing legislators to open birth certificates for all, but is primarily to raise his image and that of the EBD as “experts,” as providers of marketing-survey-based position papers that uniformly prop up adoption, which he repeatedly calls a “wondrous institution.”

The restoration of rights to adoptees is unrelated to this kind of glowing, and unwarranted, description of the adoption industry. Instead, it’s that kind of exaggerated language, the vague promise that adoptees might know the facts of their origins, and the outright confusion of birth certificates with seldom-specified “medical records” that complicate, if not sabotage, the relatively simple matter of restoring a basic civil right and equal protection under the law to adoptees. No one should be compelled to disclose personal medical information to others, even family members – in fact, it’s against the law – but the repeated, and completely irrelevant, pounding on the availability of medical histories is not germane to restoring the basic civil rights of all adoptees by restoring access to original birth certificates.

What, then, is Adam Pertman actually doing? Having been exposed to his empty rhetoric for years now, and his most recent endorsement of legislation (”we urge swift passage”) such as that now under consideration in New Jersey (A1406) which would permanently create sealed birth certificates for some individuals (link from June 2010), I’d say that Pertman isn’t interested in “rights” at all. What he’s pushing is what I’ve come to call openness™ in adoption, which is, first and foremost, a marketing position taken by the adoption industry, which is why I sarcastically add the italics and trademark to the word.

openness™ is not focused on individuals, so it actually doesn’t take the fact that individuals have rights that apply to everyone as a fundamental basis for policy. openness™ is, instead, primarily about preserving and growing the institution of adoption, through rehabilitating the public perception of adoption through marketing the idea that everyone involved in adoption will come to feel good about it, and about each other. It is about the relationships among the people involved with adoption, mediated, if not being the outright puppets of, the state and the institutions of adoption, including agencies and attorneys involved with adoption. All of this is to grease the rails so that more and “better” adoptions occur: parents, particularly mothers, must give up their children and their privacy of medical information, adopters get assurances that they’re receiving a quality product, and adoptees… well, if everyone else thinks it’s okay, they might get access to, perhaps, some portion of an official record of their origin, to which they have, under the openness™ model, no absolute right, merely the possibility of an arbitrary privilege of access.

It’s not surprising that self-described “Bastards,” with knowledge of history and experience with adoption politics, have a problem with this. Members of Bastard Nation, the adoptee rights organization, have successfully worked to open birth certificates to all adoptees in several states including Oregon in 2000. Recently BN helped hold the line against proposed legislation in Oregon that would have reversed that ten-year-old victory, limiting birth certificate access only to those adoptees “whose birth parent has filed a Consent to Release of Original Birth Certificate,” to quote from the proposed legislation. It is this kind of threat to the fundamental rights of adoptees that is enabled by the openness™ regime; when the right to access is not taken as absolute and inviolable, virtually any trivial objection by anyone else who was involved with or once participated in an adoption may be allowed to take precedence over that right.

This week, Adam Pertman and the EBD will be hosting an event in New York that they call “For The Records.” As with Pertman’s other activities, from reading the invitation on the EBD website, it’s not altogether clear how anything about this event will actually support advocacy of legislation that opens birth certificates for all adoptees. It’s more about the vague language of openness™, which is all about marketing the institution of adoption, not the reality of effective advocacy for open records legislation. And since it’s all about the marketing of openness™ and promotion of the institution of adoption as clean, wholesome and desirable, the event takes on the form of some kind of bizarre corporate promotion, complete with musical and comedic entertainment:

  • Oprah Winfrey, who is not going to be present, nor, as far as I know, is in any way substantially connected with Pertman or EBD, is named on the invite through reference to an “Oprah Winfrey Reunion Story” that we’re all supposed to already be familiar with. Those of us who aren’t completely transfixed by celebrities or who consider following the details of Oprah Winfrey’s life a waste of time might find this reference a bit mystifying, but I suppose such contortions on the part of this event’s promoters are absolutely necessary, lest they miss the opportunity to associate their brand with a public figure loved and followed by millions.
  • Appearances by two celebrities, rapper Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Zara Phillips
  • The “world premier” [sic] of the two-year-old music video featuring McDaniels and Phillips that’s all about openness™ but that fails to convey the basic fact that opening birth certificates is a matter between adopted individuals and the state, not between them and their parents
  • Book signings of allegedly “just published” books by Adam Pertman  and Zara Phillips. Pertman’s book is a “revised and updated” edition of his “Adoption Nation” from 2000, Phillips’ is the US edition of her 2008 UK release. Like any other marketing-focused event, there are books and videos to be promoted.
  • A video by comedienne Alison Larkin, who likewise has a book to promote and a career to keep afloat.
  • Video from, and appearance of, filmmaker Jean Strauss, who is best known among some for her involvement with California CARE, and an abortive effort to introduce a bill there that would have taken a bad situation for adoptees in California, and made it much worse.  Strauss, author of a “guide to search and reunion,” likewise has a  number of DVD’s and books for sale on her website.

So if you’re keeping score, you’d know by now that of all the announced guests, only one has been involved with spearheading an organized legislative effort: Jean Strauss. But Strauss, in the course of organizing that doomed effort, has explicitly denied that open birth certificates are a civil right of adoptees. Regarding the advocacy of her organization in California, she wrote,  “… this is not an effort to ‘right a wrong’ or a ‘fight for our Constitutional rights’.” This exactly matches the model of openness™ which likewise deliberately evades the fact that individuals have rights with respect to the state, that should apply to everyone. In the same letter, Strauss threw some unknown number of adoptees overboard, announcing that their goal was only “of providing access to original birth records for as many California adult adoptees 18 and older as possible.” From the looks of the proposed legislation, that would have been very few California adoptees indeed.

Adoptee rights activists who have successfully organized legislative efforts in states like Alabama, New Hampshire, and Oregon – where birth certificates are open without conditions – are nowhere to be found on this stage. That is as it should be, because what this event is about is marketing of everything else about adoption, particularly the mystique – to those who aren’t adopted –  of search and reunion necessitated by sealed records. The substance of equal rights for adoptees cannot be found amidst all the pontificating about how wonderful adoption is, and the selling of products. The language of equal rights may appear there, but only in service to the industry, and to the marketing: of videos, of books, of celebrities and their careers, of the position papers and testimony offered by Adam Pertman and his organization.

There’s a hint of where this leads, right there in the description of the event on EBD’s page, where they claim the event is about “the need for states to restore adult adoptees’ access to their original birth certificates” (my emphasis). This language is disingenuous with respect to human rights, as it points out a need for justice, but is not attached to an exact definition, a concrete plan,  demonstrated actions, or an organizational history that shows how those rights might uniformly be gained for all people. A perpetual need, never fulfilled, for such access may well fill a particular marketing niche among the promoters of the institution of adoption; it provides a subject to talk about, to gain entry into the halls of legislatures as well as the media, through a never-ending series of search-and-possibly-reunion stories made possible by the inaccessibility of birth certificates that document the historical fact of one’s birth. openness™, and its cousin, conditional access legislation, might grant birth certificate access to only a very privileged few adoptees. The passage of conditional access legislation is the legacy of EBD’s vague, unfocused advocacy and self-promotion.

A genuine initiative that actually worked to grant open birth certificates to all adoptees, across the board, would speak with clarity to act as a civil rights movement for adoptees. (Such a movement has long existed, but it won’t be participating in EBD’s spectacles.)  The vagueness and ineffectiveness of openness™, with much obfuscating talk of search, reunion and medical histories, builds upon ongoing, continued injustice, and mere talk of rectification, as a framework for perpetual marketing of the institution of adoption.  That is why Adam Pertman’s adoption marketing poses an ongoing threat to human rights.

Leave a Reply