The Son My Sister Placed for Adoption Wants to Find Her. What Should I Do?


Once a safe adoptive family had been secured for her son, in my view, your sister was entitled to foreclose further interaction and keep her identity from her offspring. The point of adoption, it seems to me, is that your family identity becomes that of your adoptive family. Besides, this man’s identity is already pretty much fixed. Even if he had been wronged by being deprived of knowledge about his biological kin when growing up, that wrong wouldn’t be set right by supplying the knowledge now.

The story is different if we’re just talking about anonymized information. Adoptees could have a right to some facts about ancestry even if they didn’t have the right to a relationship. For one thing, there are medical considerations. If you knew you had two or more close kin who had pancreatic cancer, say, your doctor might recommend a particular screening regimen. In a majority of cases, we don’t know how to identify familial pancreatic cancer without a family history — the sort of polygenic-risk profiles you can get from genomic sequencing are still too primitive. (These days, birth parents are typically asked to disclose relevant medical facts to adoptive ones, but some relevant facts may not emerge until after an adoption.)

How can we recognize both the interests of adopted children and the rights of birth mothers? Children from a closed adoption, on reaching adulthood, should be allowed to send a message to their biological parents asking for contact. We should have a mechanism, too, for seeking updated medical histories. All of this would be consistent with recognizing a biological parent’s right to refuse contact and, in turn, denying that biological children are entitled to know their parents.

So don’t keep your sister in the dark about what has happened. Tell the man whatever she is willing to let him know, should she choose not to communicate with him directly. But if she still wants nothing to do with her biological son, you should respect her choice.

How does your niece fit into this picture? Let’s figure you’re right about what she knows (or doesn’t). Your sister wouldn’t be able to introduce herself to her birth son without opening up about her past to her daughter; it’s hard to imagine that he would establish contact with his birth mother without wanting to get in touch with his half sister. So a difficult conversation could lie ahead.

Of course, nothing prevents you from telling your niece, a grown woman, whatever you please. But if you do so against your sister’s wishes, you’ll be throwing a small bomb into the family — disrupting her relationship with her daughter and your relationship with your sister. I don’t know how revealing your Facebook page is: Perhaps he’ll eventually identify his mother on his own. In the meantime, you clearly hope that she reconsiders her youthful decision, and so do I. What you shouldn’t do, however, is make the decision for her.

I am a faculty member of a small college. I also serve on a five-member scholarship committee to award an annual memorial scholarship to a deserving student. I have encouraged my students to submit applications, as do other faculty members. Although I believe that I could be fair and impartial, is it ethical for me to vote on which applicant (whose submission is not anonymous) should receive the annual scholarship? Name Withheld

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