Adoption Politics

Bastard Nation and Ballot Initiative 58

E. Wayne Carp

The passage of Measure 58 in Oregon in 1998 was a milestone in adoption reform. For the first time in U.S. history a grassroots initiative restored the legal right of adopted adults to request and receive their original birth certificates. Within a day after the law went into effect, nearly 2,400 adoptees had applied for these previously sealed records, elevating their right to know over a birth mothers right to privacy.

E. Wayne Carp, a nationally respected authority on adoption history, now reveals the efforts of the radical adoptee rights organization Bastard Nation to pass this milestone initiative. He has written an intimate history of a passionately proposed and opposed initiative that has the potential to revolutionize the adoption reform movement nationwide.

“Significantly extends our understanding of family law and politics. . . . Carp offers savvy and sensitive profiles of his main characters and grounds his narrative in the minutiae of daily politics and journalism while centering the story in the big picture he knows so well.

—Pacific Northwest Quarterly

“E. Wayne Carp is the leading scholar of the history of openness and secrecy in adoption and of the adoption rights movement dedicated to opening adoption records. In this book he explores the successful effort of a very small but well-organized group of adoption activists who used the political initiative process to change state law in Oregon and secure for adult adoptees access to the identifying information in their original, unamended birth certificates. . . . Carp presents a fascinating analysis of successful grass-roots political agitation. . . . In many ways, this book is a primer for democratic political action in the internet age with a significance far beyond the issue of adoption rights.

—Journal of Women’s History

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Carp follows the campaign from its inception through the hard-fought signature drives of proponents Helen Hill and Shea Grimm to the electoral campaign and ensuing court battles. The opposition was formidable: government officials, adoption agencies, news media, the ACLU, religious organizations, and ad-hoc citizen political groups. Using correspondence and his own candid interviews with all the key players, Carp shows how both sides mobilized their constituencies and formed their strategies. In describing challenges to Measure 58s constitutionality, Carp reveals legal arguments that were never publicized by the Oregon media and remained unknown to the American public until now—issues centering on privacy rights that are crucial to understanding both sides of the controversy and the hazards of initiative politics.

As Carp shows, Measure 58 was important because it framed the issue of adoption reform in terms of civil rights and equal protection of the law rather than in terms of psychological needs or medical necessity. The resulting law now gives adult adoptees access to birth certificates but it also allows birth mothers to indicate whether or not they wish to be contacted. Carp not only chronicles a milestone initiative and a model piece of legislation for other states to emulate, he also proposes a sensible way to cut the Gordian Knot that bedevils adoption reform today.