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The Strange History of the Birth Certificate

Illustration by Jim Stoten

Recently, my mother unearthed my birth certificate and sent it to me. There, typed on a manual typewriter, were my name, the date and time of birth, the name of the hospital, and the names and race of both my parents. According to the certificate, I was not a twin or triplet, did not have siblings who died or were stillborn, had one sibling living. My mother did not live on a farm. In the section for “Father of Child,” there was a box for my dad’s occupation (“law student”) and another for his “kind of business or industry” (“University of Virginia”). For “Mother of Child,” there were no boxes for occupation or business or industry. This was the 1960s, and a mother was not expected to have them.

The certificate is a true record of my origins, I’m pretty certain, but it’s startling how many birth certificates are not. It’s been estimated that as many as 10 percent of children are being raised by men who are not their genetic fathers even though they think they are, and babies conceived by sperm donation (or known infidelity) are usually recorded as the offspring of the fathers who rear them. So the birth certificate has never been a reliable genealogical record, though with all its trappings—the fancy border, the signatures, the raised seal—it sure looks like one.

And as advances in reproductive technology enlarge the cast of characters who contribute to the making of a child, a tall tale keeps getting taller. Egg donors earn no mention on a birth certificate, despite providing half a child’s genetic makeup. Even surrogates (women who carry children for other people) are being omitted by means of a popular legal device known as a “pre-birth order,” which names the mother—or gay dad—who raises the child as the parent who gave birth to it. While these fudges help nontraditional parents create families (a good thing for the parents), they can also erase children’s genetic and gestational history (not such a good thing for the children). So whose name should go on birth certificates? And, more broadly, why do we need them at all?

As it turns out, the birth certificate is an awkward and hybrid document, tasked with any number of purposes. It dates back to the ancient world, when officials wanted to know how many citizens to tax and conscript, as well as to the 1500s, when the English church began requiring ministers to register christenings. In this country, a few colonies began recording births as early as the 1600s. But the first national model appeared around the turn of the twentieth century, as part of a health and sanitation movement. Officials needed birth (and death) records to calculate the mortal effects of epidemics, industrialization, and urban overcrowding. According to a paper in the Journal of Perinatology, in the early 1900s, the standard birth certificate recorded a child’s name and parentage and a few health facts, such as how many other babies a mother had carried. This format was periodically updated—states had the choice to follow it or not—and displayed a durable obsession with bastardy and race.

But it also acquired other uses, as an identity document and legal evidence of parentage, and that made it party to one of our culture’s biggest collective lies. As adoption became more formalized in the early twentieth century, officials began issuing one certificate with the birth mother’s name, then another naming the adoptive parents. In a spasm of mid-century morality, states saw fit to seal that original certificate, thinking that it would lessen the stigma of illegitimacy and infertility. The upshot was that well-meaning parents, who wanted to withhold the fact of adoption from their children, could invoke the birth certificate as proof. Adult adoptees have pressured states to release these original certificates, and those who see theirs find the experience important and moving.

These are the secrets, canards, and conflicting missions that gave rise to today’s birth certificate, and its deceptions continue to complicate the lives of a remarkably large number of children. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more than 61,000 infants were born in 2010 as the result of in vitro fertilization. Nearly 8,000 of these pregnancies came from donor eggs. An estimated 1,400 babies were carried by surrogates. There are no good estimates of how many children are fathered by sperm donors, although back in 1988, someone arrived at the figure of 30,000 a year.

Every now and then, it becomes apparent just how inadequate the certificate is to its task. This happened recently in New Jersey, when a husband and wife who had tried to have children naturally, and could not, contracted with both a surrogate and an anonymous egg donor. They sought a pre-birth order directing that the wife be listed as “mother” from the get-go, even though she had neither a genetic nor a gestational connection to the child. The courts were OK with this, initially, but the state’s bureau of vital statistics balked. What resulted was more than three years of hassles, roping in not just the state Supreme Court and legislature, but also Governor Chris Christie. Eventually, the wife had to resort to adoption proceedings, while the father, who had been the father all along, did not.

These legal train wrecks happen because vital statisticians see the birth certificate as serving public health, family lawyers see it as cementing parental status, and politicians see the problems of the nontraditional family as something from which to run hard. The certificate is, at one and the same time, the thing you bring to soccer practice to prove your daughter’s age—and a key part of collecting crucial data about birth. Nowadays, the birth certificate is an opportunity to capture information about prematurity, prenatal care, complications of delivery, obstetrical practices, and maternal risk factors such as obesity and smoking. These facts are passed along to a public that eagerly wishes to know the risks associated with prenatal behavior and delivery methods. If a surrogate is excluded from the certificate, it theoretically should be possible to record the details of her pregnancy and delivery, but whether this happens varies from state to state.

And consider how strange it is that we gather nuanced data on a mother’s education or Hispanic origins or use of government-funded groceries, and ignore an egg that that didn’t come from her. All told, there can be as many as five people contributing to a birth by assisted reproduction: egg donor, surrogate, sperm donor, legal mother, legal father. We know that genetic history foretells a lot about well-being. We know that the genome unfolds, or “expresses” itself, in the womb. So a surrogate has an impact on children’s health, and so do donors, at birth and thereafter. If you’ve ever gone for a physical, you’ve been asked about your family history: breast cancer, heart conditions, strokes. It’s a problem if tens of thousands of people are walking around thinking they are related to the wrong parents.

So it seems time to make birth certificates more honest and transparent. I admit this is idealistic, and hard. Most egg and sperm donation in the United States takes place under cover of anonymity, a huge barrier to better records. Countries like Australia and Britain are wrestling with these questions more seriously and openly than we are, debating how birth certificates might reflect reality in a way that’s fair to parent and child alike (for example, an addendum to the certificate, which a donor-conceived person could obtain upon reaching adulthood) and how much leeway we should give the government to record its citizens’ private reproductive activities.

“This is such an unholy mess,” says Adam Pertman, an adoptive father who runs the Donaldson Adoption Institute. “I have a birth certificate that shows my wife and I created our children, and it’s not true.” Pertman would be happy to have a “certificate of adoption” instead. “We should be able to embrace our families in the way they were created, rather than pretend they were created some other way.”

Liza Mundy is a fellow at the New America Foundation and author, most recently, of The Richer Sex. Follow @lizamundy.