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Question 41: May a woman who was adopted try to contact her natural parents?

My parents had been married six years and thought they could have no children when they adopted me, but then they had my three brothers. Dad and Mom told me when I was very young that I was adopted, so it seems I always have known. They have been good to me, treating us all the same. Or so it seems to me. The boys think I have been treated better, but Mom always says: “Not better, but differently, because she’s a girl and older than you!”

Lately I have been wondering about my natural parents. Last year I had a very thorough physical when it was suspected I might have a serious health problem, and the doctors would have liked information about my family medical history. We could not provide it, since my adoption was through an agency that allowed no contact between natural and adoptive parents. The problem turned out not to be serious, but now I am a senior in college and, though not yet engaged, am thinking about getting married, and it might be good to know something about my hereditary background. Mainly, though, I am just curious about how I came to be. Also, I imagine it must have been hard for my natural mother to give me up, and, assuming she is still alive, she might be happy to learn how well things have gone for me.

I have looked into it just enough to know that, if I want to, I can find out who my natural parents are and probably can locate them. I have talked with various people about it, starting with Dad and Mom. They are not enthusiastic, mainly because they feel it is unnecessary and might lead to problems. Still, they always are supportive when I do something that, without agreeing with it, they do not consider wrong, and I am sure that will be so in this case. Dad summed it up, “I’d be inclined to let sleeping dogs lie, but if you decide to wake this one up, we’ll just hope he won’t be nasty.” I also asked the college chaplain whether he thought it would be wrong for me to get in touch with my natural parents. He told me he did not see anything wrong with it, but did not know for sure, and suggested I ask you.


This question calls for a judgment about communication with natural parents. The questioner’s reasons for doing so are sound but not compelling. Communicating with her natural parents could have various harmful results, especially for her natural mother. So, in my judgment, fairness to others, especially her natural mother, and reasonable self-interest require the questioner to forgo communicating directly with her natural parents. However, she could try to learn what she can about them without communicating with them in any way. She also might try to communicate by means of a carefully chosen intermediary.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Some adopted children have cogent reasons for identifying and communicating with their natural parents. For instance, for their children’s very survival or other vital interests, some parents in poor and/or war ravaged nations have been compelled to give them up for adoption by families in better circumstances; if the children prosper, they have a reason, and perhaps even a duty, to locate their natural parents and help them if possible.

Other people have questionable motives for wishing to find their natural parents. Some have psychological problems that they unreasonably hope will be solved in this way; for them, the quest can become an obsession. Rebellious adolescents sometimes hope to fulfill their fantasies of having “perfect” parents by replacing those who raised them with their “real” parents. My advice to a person with such a project would be short and definite: Accept those who adopted you as your real parents, for they are that in every respect except the biological, which is not as essential to parenthood as the unconditional commitment to accept a child as one’s own and fulfill one’s parental responsibilities toward him or her.

By contrast, your motives, though not extraordinary, seem healthy and mature: a practical concern to obtain information that might be relevant to your future health care and marriage, a kindly wish to let your natural mother know that her giving you up for adoption benefited you, and curiosity about your origin. The last motive might be questioned by some, but it is good to wish to know oneself, and one’s biological origins and ancestry are an essential part of one’s personal reality. So, though not every adopted person wonders about these matters and some are more interested in them than others, they do fall within the range of natural curiosity about oneself. Moreover, you have shown maturity and prudence by not rushing into this project, but first discussing it with your parents and then seeking advice from the college chaplain. Therefore, as posed by you, your question really is difficult.

While I endorse your motives for wishing to communicate with your natural parents, in my judgment you also should think seriously about the possible harmful results.135 These, it seems to me, are of three sorts.

First, your natural mother very likely could have aborted you had she willed, but she loved you enough to bear you and give you up for adoption. As you say, that probably was hard for her. She almost certainly did it with the intention and hope that you would be loved and brought up well, as, indeed, you have been. So, you are right to feel toward her the gratitude you manifest in wishing to console her by letting her know you have been cherished and have done well. She might be delighted to hear from you, and perhaps the two of you would develop a mutually enriching relationship. However, making contact with her might injure rather than benefit her, and the injury could be very grave, due to at least two things: first, the painful recalling of the past, including the circumstances of your birth, and, perhaps, the intimate relationship that led to your conception; and second, the possible revelation of that past to others from whom it has been kept secret, and the disturbing effects that might have on her present life.

Second, you also cannot predict the trouble initiating some sort of relationship with your natural parents might cause yourself and your adoptive parents. While everything might go well, in speaking of “sleeping dogs” your Dad actually understates the potential emotional problems and other serious, practical burdens that might arise. In retrospect—to change the metaphor—you might well regret having opened a Pandora’s box.

Third, if people like you identify and communicate with their natural parents, the example will encourage immature and less well-motivated individuals to do the same, to their own and others’ detriment. Indeed, widespread breaching of the confidentiality that has surrounded adoptions like yours will tend to undermine the practice of handling adoptions as yours was handled. Yet entirely excluding contact between the children and their natural parents can offer significant advantages to all parties.136 The natural parents are relieved of further parental responsibilities, protected to a great extent from ongoing emotional suffering, and freed to go on with their lives, putting the past behind them and, perhaps, even hiding it. These benefits are especially important today for the encouragement they give women who otherwise might abort their babies to regard adoption as an appealing alternative. The adoptive parents are relieved of competition for filial affection, possible interference with their parenting, the burden of conducting additional quasi-familial relationships, and a possible source of temptation to be tentative in their parental commitment or to renege on it. The adopted child also benefits by having a single, unified, unambiguous parental principle, which is conducive to secure self-confidence and a sense of personal identity.

In view of these considerations, identifying and communicating directly with your natural parents would, it seems to me, be both unfair to others, especially your natural mother, and an unreasonable risk to yourself. Still, to accomplish at least some of your good purposes, you might consider two alternatives: (1) trying to learn what you can about your natural parents without communicating with them in any way; and (2) employing a suitable intermediary to find them and communicate with them within certain fixed limits.

Unless you decide simply to let the matter rest, I think you should begin with the first alternative. An initial cautious inquiry might well yield information that would give you additional reasons for proceeding or not proceeding with the second. Then, if you decide to undertake indirect communication, the intermediary would have to be someone trustworthy, discreet, and prudent, who would proceed very cautiously so as to minimize the risk of baring secrets or causing other serious injuries. Again, to minimize risks, your instructions to the intermediary should be only to obtain information that may be of use in your health care and plans regarding marriage, and to convey your consoling message to your natural mother. In this way, the intermediary could pursue those good purposes without initiating an interpersonal relationship or even establishing a channel of ongoing communication.

If you do employ an intermediary, I suggest you instruct him or her to communicate first with your natural mother, who probably is more vulnerable. Only with her consent and if necessary to achieve your purpose, it seems to me, would it be fair to her to risk communicating in a similar indirect way with your natural father.

Of course, proceeding this way, you will not fully satisfy your curiosity about your roots and will forgo a possibly worthwhile relationship with your natural parents. But many adopted people have lived good lives without these things, and you have done well up to now without them. Forgoing such things out of consideration for others and reasonable self-concern need not mean being deprived of them forever. Our lives in this world are brief. You can pray for your natural parents, and hope to meet them in heaven and there enjoy perfect and unending communion with them, as well as with your Dad and Mom, and everyone else who has contributed to your life in this world.

135. Karen March, The Stranger Who Bore Me: Adoptee-Birth Mother Relationships (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), studied sixty reunited adoptees. Though favoring the undertaking by adoptees, she found that the majority failed to establish a satisfying, continuing relationship with their birth mothers (97–117).

136. Many researchers favor open adoption—see Harriet E. Gross, “Open Adoption: A Research-Based Literature Review and New Data,” Child Welfare, 72 (1993): 269–84—but seem to me to discount disadvantages and bad outcomes, and to focus on the majority of cases, in which the adults involved judge the experience satisfactory.