TRENTON - Gov. Christie and the Legislature reached a historic compromise Monday on the New Jersey Adoptees' Birthright Bill, which would give adopted adults over age 18 access to their original birth certificates.
New Jersey would join eight other states that have unsealed adoptee records since 1995. Pennsylvania lawmakers are reviewing a similar measure.
Adoptees and advocacy groups in New Jersey have long championed having such access, saying it can lead to vital medical, genealogical, and other personal information that could affect adoptees' lives, especially as they need answers to make sound health decisions.
But the measure was opposed with equal tenacity by a powerful coalition - New Jersey Right to Life, the state Catholic Conference, the New Jersey State Bar Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union's New Jersey chapter.
All argued that it would violate the privacy of birth parents who choose to put their children up for adoption. The Right to Life group claimed that compromising the privacy of a birth mother could lead to an increase in abortions.
Monday was the deadline for the Republican governor to act on the bill, which passed both houses Feb. 27.
Some feared that Christie, a potential 2016 presidential nominee, would again side with conservatives, as he did in 2011 by conditionally vetoing the bill. The changes he recommended then were unacceptable to proponents and sponsors.
Those fears were allayed just before 2:30 p.m. when Christie announced his "conditional approval."
"The questions considered in this bill have been thoughtfully and passionately examined for decades, producing numerous proposals for reform," Christie said in a statement. "Advocates on all sides, however, share the view that life is a precious gift, and that the birth of a child is always an occasion for celebration among family, friends, and community.
"With this in mind, I agree that New Jersey should take a new, open approach to adoption records that eliminates the requirement of obtaining a court order to access birth records."
Under the compromise, the law will take effect Dec. 31, 2016, instead of six months from its signing. It gives birth parents of children who are adopted before Aug. 1, 2015, until the end of 2016 to ask that their names be removed from birth certificates. If they do so, they will be asked to give a family health history.
Biological parents of children adopted after Aug. 1, 2015, would not have the option of removing their names.
The requirement for a confidential intermediary to facilitate contact between birth parents and adoptees - which opponents had asked for and Christie insisted on three years ago - was revised and made an option.
Birth parents would be allowed to indicate to a state registrar their preference for contact - direct contact, contact through a confidential intermediary whom the mother may choose, or no contact. If a contact preference form is filed, the birth parents must provide a family health history.
"While I support this bill's goals, I recommend additional safeguards necessary to balance the needs of adoptees seeking critical records of their identity, with the expectations of birth parents in years past who may wish to remain private," Christie said.
The governor also recommended that "the bill be amended to create a suitable transition and implementation period allowing an adoptee to obtain an original birth certificate without involvement from the courts beginning in 2017."
Lawmakers who have backed the measure for years were relieved.
"For 34 years, adoptees throughout the state have been fighting for the right to access their birth records and family histories - important documents that not only supply a core identity of who they are and where they come from, but also important medical information," said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex), a prime sponsor since 1998. "Today, we have come to an agreement with the administration that will open up these records to many New Jerseyans."
Vitale and Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington) met individually with Christie last week in final appeals to persuade him to support the legislation, which has repeatedly fallen short of the needed votes or a governor's signature.
The measure Christie conditionally vetoed in 2011 never reached a floor vote in either house. This time will be different, said Vitale. He said the prime sponsors in both, including Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson), were on board with Christie's recommendations.
The revised bill must now be approved by both chambers. The next voting session is May 12 for the Senate and May 15 for the Assembly. Christie will then have 10 days to sign it into law.
"I thank the governor for recognizing the injustices that New Jersey's closed records laws have imposed on adoptees here for far too long," said Allen, who has sponsored the legislation for 17 years. "Adopted adults will at long last be able to choose for themselves whether or not they want to find out basic information the rest of us take for granted, like whether they have siblings or their family's medical history."
The adoptee community lauded the compromise.
"I am pleased, and I think Susan would be pleased," said Ty Perry of Cherry Hill, whose wife, Susan, a longtime proponent, died this month of melanoma. She had sought her mother's medical history after being found to have the illness 13 years ago. "Even though it's not perfect, as we all know in the realm of politics, you have to sacrifice the perfect for what is possible."
Adoptee Cindy Wren, now 58, of Tuckerton, who has been searching for decades for information about her birth mother, said: "I'm absolutely thrilled. I hope it opens doors for people who really need the help."
Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, said her group was disappointed.
"This proposal has significant implications for women who find themselves in crisis pregnancies in our state," she wrote in an e-mail. "It's very unfortunate that women in New Jersey will not have the ability to place a child for adoption and keep their identity private.
"If this proposal is 'adopted,' we would advise women seeking privacy in adoption to give birth in a state that values privacy," she said.
Eight states - Alabama, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Ohio, Oregon, Illinois, and Tennessee - have passed access legislation since 1995.
In Pennsylvania, a measure to give adoptees who are at least 19 and born in the Keystone State access to their original record without redactions is set for a Senate committee hearing. The House passed it, 197-0, in October.