In the past, the question of birth certificates (what they say/do not say) has been extremely controversial here. I suppose what this means is that it is controversial out there in the world. I didn’t really plan to address this topic quite yet, but as it is in the news, here goes.
Today The New York Times reports an important decision from a judge in Texas. In some ways the topic may seem far afield as this is really an immigration issue. It seems that Texas decided to require very specific documents in order for women giving birth there to get a birth certificate. This mean that those who did not have proper documentation of legal entry into the country couldn’t get birth certificates. Forms of identification that had been accepted were being rejected. (So you had been able to get a birth certificate with a passport, but then it changed so that you could only use a passport if it had a valid US visa.)
The point of this policy was to make it difficult (if not impossible) to get birth certificates for the children being born in the US. These children are US citizens, because the US law says that anyone born the US is a US citizen. (Not all countries have this law, but the US does. This is NOT a topic I’m planning to discuss here. It’s just what US law is and has been. Nothing new about it.)
So if I’m not writing about immigration (and I’m not) why does this warrant note here? Because of this sentence, taken from the middle of the article:
Parents said they could not obtain the required documents. They had not been able to baptize their children, enroll them in school or sign them up for public health programs so they could be vaccinated. With no legal document proving the babies were their children, parents feared that if they were deported, their families might be separated or that the children might not able to return to the only country where they were citizens.
Now I have to say, this is rather poorly written? What are the “required documents” in the first sentence? Fairly read it might be the forms of identification that Texas now requires to get the birth certificate. But I think it really means that parents couldn’t get birth certificates for their children. That does seems to be the whole point of the decision, after all.
And again–why recite all this here? Because it shows why birth certificates matter. Without a birth certificate, parents couldn’t enroll their children in school or sign them up for public health programs or prove that the children had been born in the US.
For better or for worse, we (in the US and in Texas) use birth certificates for a lot of different things. And so parents need to have them and need to be listed on them.
And here is what has made them controversial in the world of ART as well as adoption. Birth certificates show legal parentage. They identify the person who can sign the child up for school or authorize vaccines. That means new birth certificates are issued upon adoption. And birth certificates do not list genetic parents who are not legal parents–those who provide gametes for ART, say.
I understand that for many people this means that birth certificates lie. They do not tell the truth of your birth. (Though come to that, it seems to me the “truthful birth certificate” would only list the name of the woman who gives birth.)
It wouldn’t be impossible to change things around so that birth certificates listed genetic parenthood (which never changes) and that some other official document listed legal parents. Perhaps it would be better. But the thing to understand is that it would be a big change. Right now we use birth certificates for many different purposes, and for some of them, they have to show legal parentage. And legal parentage can and does change.
By the way, without meaning to open another large topic, there’s also a debate about the maker for sex/gender on a birth certificate. Many states allow transpeople to change the marker as they transition. Many other states do not. As with listings for parents, the question is really about what those markers mean–what they tell us. And again, until you think about how birth certificates are used, you cannot think about whether they should be altered.