Back in 2000, Oregon and Alabama acted to ensure that people who'd been adopted could get access to their original birth certificates. Advocates of that goal, calling it an overdue recognition of basic rights, hoped the trend would sweep through the nation.
It didn't happen. The momentum slowed amid fights over personal privacy and other issues. Today, just nine states give adoptees unrestricted access. Others provide limited access. And there's no systematic access at all in about 20 states, including the four most populous — California, Texas, Florida and New York.
"After Oregon, after Alabama, we thought, 'Wow, we're on a roll. These laws are going to topple.' And then we had to wait years," said Marley Greiner, co-founder of the adoptee-rights organization Bastard Nation.
The issue remains highly contentious. Some opponents of full access argue that making birth certificates available on demand would violate birth mothers' privacy and induce some pregnant women to opt for abortion rather than adoption.
Adoptee-rights activists, while calling those arguments groundless, have divisions in their own ranks. Some are willing to consider compromise bills that provide limited access; others say it's wrong to accept anything other than unrestricted access equal to what's available for non-adopted people.
"What we have is state-sanctioned discrimination against adoptees," said Claudia Corrigan D'Arcy, an activist campaigning for full access in New York. "It's no different from giving you a different water fountain to drink from."
One striking aspect of the debate is how it doesn't reflect the Republican-Democrat, liberal-conservative divide that pervades U.S. politics.
The states offering unrestricted access are mixed in their political leanings — Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Kansas and Maine. California and New York are two of the most liberal states, while conservatives control the statehouses in Texas and Florida, yet the adoptee-rights movement has struggled in all four to make headway on birth certificates.
Here's a look at those struggles:
State Rep. Richard Stark, who was adopted as an infant in New York State, introduced a bill in Florida this year that would allow adoptees access to their original birth certificates after they turn 18. The bill never received a hearing; Stark said there was opposition from some adoption lawyers and adoption agencies.
One key opponent was Rep. Jason Brodeur, who like Stark was adopted as an infant.
"There should be a guarantee that if those birth parents don't want to be found, they won't be, but also an avenue where if they want to be found, they can be," Brodeur said.
Stark plans to reintroduce his bill next session. He said he might accept a modification so that, as is the case in some states, birth parents could have their names redacted from the birth certificate before the adoptee obtained it.
For many years, there have been unsuccessful efforts in New York's legislature to expand access to original birth certificates.
This year, legislators passed a bill that would enable some adoptees to more easily obtain those records. Yet many activists, outraged by restrictions in the bill, want Gov. Andrew Cuomo to veto it. There's no timetable yet for his decision.
Rather than letting adoptees access birth certificates on the same basis as other adults, the bill would require them to apply to a court. The state health department would then try to contact the birth parents to inform them of the application. If a birth parent is located and requests continued anonymity, the parent's name would be redacted before the records are released.
Corrigan D'Arcy, a birth mother who has lobbied for unrestricted access, says the bill ignores the experiences of states such as Oregon and Alabama, where there has been little outcry about expanded access causing harm to birth parents.
"In states where they did it well, nothing bad happens," she said. "Birth mothers don't throw themselves off roofs; adoptees don't become stalkers."
Among the adoptees hoping to benefit from the bill is Larry Dell, 68, who grew up in New York City with parents he loved. He learned nine years ago that he'd been adopted as an infant, and was one of five siblings in his birth family.
"It was a shock to learn that, and the bigger shock was when I couldn't find out who my birth parents were," he said. "I understand the flaws in the bill, but I'm still 100 percent behind it... For someone like me, who's been searching, it's incredible."
Over the past 20 years, there have been several attempts in America's most populous state to expand adoptees' access to their birth certificates.
One bill died in the state Assembly in 2009, partly because of a cost estimate of $16 million to implement it but also because of divisions in the adoptee-rights community. Hard-line groups such as Bastard Nation denounced a provision that birth certificates would not be released if a birth parent objected; they wanted no restrictions whatsoever.
Jean Strauss, a filmmaker and California-born adoptee who lobbied for the bill, was frustrated by that attitude.
"They feel it's their way or the highway," Strauss said.
A bill with no restrictions was introduced in 2014, but went nowhere.
Another option would be to seek voter approval of unrestricted access via a ballot measure. That's how a no-restrictions policy prevailed in Oregon, but California activists say it might be difficult to raise the money needed for a successful ballot-measure campaign in their state.
Adoptee-rights activists in Texas have been pushing for birth certificate access for years, to no avail. They attribute recent setbacks to the clout of a single state senator, Donna Campbell, a physician, adoptive mother and close ally of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate president.
In 2015, a bill that would have provided adoptees with unrestricted access to their birth certificates passed the House on a 138-1 vote, yet failed to advance from a Senate committee after Campbell blocked it. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate this year but failed to reach the floor for a vote, with Campbell again instrumental in stopping it.
Campbell, in a statement provided by her office, said the bill "did not afford birth parents the privacy protections guaranteed by current law." She said adoptees should instead make use of a registry that's intended to help birth parents and adult adoptees reunite by mutual consent.