Somehow the last post (the one about Jason Patric) has generated some extended discussion of birth certificates. These come up here from time to time. (You’d find they warrant there own tag.) I always approach the topic with some hesitation because they seem to inspire extremely strong feelings. But still, they are fascinating documents and they raise critical issues, so here we are again.
For starters, I’d suggest you read the most recent birth certificate post I wrote. It just saves time not to repeat myself and I’ve read it over and don’t have anything different to say about the basics. The bottom line is that in the US, for whatever reasons, birth certificates are very curious documents.
Parts of them record historical facts: Where and when a child was born, say. What I mean is that if it says a child was born at 3:23 PM on May 19th, 2014 than that is a record of an historical event that happened at a particular time–the birth of this child. There’s no basis to go back and change a historical record unless it was initially recorded wrongly.
They also record (and I guess I haven’t really talked much about this) the sex of the child. Now you could view sex as a historical fact–essentially reflecting the observations of some attending medical personage (basically “this child had a penis”) If that’s what it is, then here too you wouldn’t go back and change it unless it turned out the observation was unreliable. (Anyone read Middlesex?) But in a number of states, including Washington, the sex listed on the birth certificate is a reflection of the present gender identity of the individual–which means that if you transition from male to female you can get a new birth certificate with a new sex on it. In this case, it isn’t a historical record-it’s an identity document. The point to take away is that state differ about this.
And then there are the places where they list “parents” or “mother” and “father.” Here again there is general agreement among the states (unlike the gender box), but it isn’t what everyone expects. Being listed as a parent on a birth certificate is a reflection of legal status. This is why when a child is adopted a new birth certificate issues–because the child has new legal parents. (That is precisely what adoption accomplishes–giving a child new legal parents.)
Now if birth certificates reflected genetic parentage, then there would be no reason to issue new ones, save to correct mistakes. Similarly, if birth certificates actually recorded the identity of the woman who gives birth (which is frankly what I think it sounds like they do) you would have no reason to change them. It’s perfectly possible to imagine a system in which this is what birth certificates did. But it is not an accurate description of what our system does.
I am aware that this makes many people angry and is upsetting to some. Please note that I am not offering a defense of the current system of birth certificates–just a description. This is not about what they ought to be, but about what they are.
All of which has taken way longer than it should, but on to Utah. Utah, like all other states, generally issues new birth certificates to adoptive parents. But it seems that the Utah Department of Health won’t issue a new birth certificate to Kimberly and Amber Leary, who are both legal parents of their daughter. The problem? It’s two women. (The story mentions a second-parent adoption. This leads me to believe one woman gave birth to the child and is on the birth certificate while the other woman adopted the child.)
Their lawyer has taken the unusual step of seeking to hold the Department of Health in contempt. It is often part of an adoption that the state is directed to issue a new birth certificate. Failure to comply with a court order can indeed amount to contempt.
It’s important to recognize that the issue here really isn’t whether birth certificates should be changed for adoptive parents. UT does change birth certificates for adoptive parents–for better or for worse. This is about whether all adoptive parents will be treated equally or whether some will be treated better than others. It’s not the first time it’s come up, but it is still worth keeping an eye on.