News flash: Michelle Obama didn't invent the crusade to improve Americans' well-being. Her focus (as we all know) is childhood obesity but, for the last several years, the office of the U.S. Surgeon General has been waging an even farther-reaching, get-everyone-healthy campaign that centers on this website.
Essentially, citing the obvious fact that many diseases are inherited, the top health official in our country is encouraging all American families to keep abreast of their medical histories, not only in the past but in an ongoing way. And, to make this important task easier to accomplish, the surgeon general's site includes software that everyone can download at no cost to help track medical information about our parents, grandparents and other relatives.
For tens of millions of people, however, this well-intentioned initiative is nothing more than a mirage, an enticing glimpse of water in the desert that they know they cannot reach. Because all of the Americans whom this campaign targets do not in fact include the vast majority of those who were adopted, rather than born, into their families.
Adoption in the United States has made enormous strides in the last few decades, moving out of the shadows and becoming an increasingly conventional, normal way of forming a family; that's especially good news for children who need permanent, loving homes.
But progress has been uneven. One way in which adoption has not yet entered the 21st Century is the anachronistic reality that most states still prohibit adoptees, even after they reach adulthood, from obtaining their birth certificates or other documents that would enable them to follow the Surgeon General's sage advice.
Proponents of keeping these records sealed assert that it's a necessary measure to maintain the anonymity that was guaranteed to birth mothers at the time their children were placed for adoption. That argument, unfortunately, is based on cultural myths and faulty stereotypes.
In fact, nearly every shred of research and experience over the last few decades shows that none of these women were given legal assurance of anonymity; at least 90 percent of them want some level of contact with or knowledge about the lives they created, regardless of what they might or might not have been told verbally; and adopted people are not stalkers or ingrates, but simply human beings who want the most basic information about themselves.
The good news is that we have learned an enormous amount about adoption and its participants as the institution has steadily moved into the mainstream, and many positive changes are occurring as a result. Among them are that parents adopting domestically, and an increasing number who adopt from abroad, routinely receive medical information about their sons and daughters at the outset and -- because relationships with birth families are becoming increasingly commonplace -- on an ongoing basis as their children grow up. Indeed, providing such information is now a widely accepted "best practice" for adoption practitioners.
Some states have changed their laws to permit adopted people, once they become adults, to gain access to their records. And there has been no hint, anywhere, that the recipients of those records are violating their birth mothers' privacy or otherwise disrupting their lives.
States from coast to coast -- from New York and New Jersey to Indiana and Hawaii -- today, right now, are considering legislation that would enable adult adoptees to comply with the Surgeon General's potentially life-saving advice. And next Thursday, March 10, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute is holding a unique event on this subject at the Hard Rock Café in Manhattan; for more information, go to www.adoptioninstitute.org.
With all that activity on the ground, it's a propitious time for U.S. health officials at the top, starting with the Surgeon General, to use their influence to break down the legal barriers across our country that for far too long have relegated adoptees to a special, less-privileged class of citizenship.
There's good reason for them to do it. After all, their medical advice is supposed to apply to all Americans.