A Case of Right to Know vs. Right to Privacy

  • Share
  • Read Later
It's one of those rare cases where nearly everyone can see both sides. But a decision finally had to be made, and on Tuesday, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor came down in favor of Oregon's adoptees, upholding a never-enforced state law by refusing to block their access to birth records. The case wound up in O'Connor's hands when six Oregon women who had previously given children up for adoption challenged the state law, claiming it violated their right to privacy. Adoptee advocates fired back, insisting the law was critical to their basic right to know: Those health records could reveal medical red flags and genetic risks.

Wednesday, Oregon's health department workers were at work processing two-year-old requests from adoptees all over the state, and legal experts were left befuddled. After all, there is no legal precedent for O'Connor's decision. And, says TIME senior reporter Alain Sanders, "there is no right answer to this dilemma." On the one hand, Sanders explains, the right to privacy is critical to citizenship, and most birth mothers give up their children with the understanding that their identity will be fiercely and permanently protected. On the other hand, adoptees have an undeniable right to know their medical background. Would adoptees be willing to accept medical records without a name attached? Would birth mothers agree to extensive physical exams and questionnaires before they leave their babies? It's a delicate and highly charged balancing act, and legal analysts remain just as stymied as the general public. At the moment, it looks like each state will be left to decide the fate of its own adoption records. While it's possible the Court could revisit this issue, it seems increasingly unlikely. The Supreme Court refused to hear a similar case from a Tennessee court, and O'Connor's unwillingness to block the Oregon law seems to cement the Court's lack of interest in dealing with adoption rights.