Feb. 29, 2008— -- Paula Benoit lives a full life, balancing motherhood with a career as a state senator in Maine. Yet ever since she can remember, there was something gnawing inside her, something she wanted to know.
"I really had always wondered about my identity, who I looked like, my medical history," Benoit said.
Benoit was adopted as an infant. At age 52, she decided it was finally time to find out the identity of her natural parents. She went to court to obtain her birth certificate.
Her request was denied. In Maine, as in most states, adoption records are sealed.
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"I want that piece of paper," said Benoit. "What right does that judge have to sit there with my records?"
So she began working on legislation to unseal records for all adoptees in her home state. When the state legislature passed this bill last year, Maine became the eighth state to give adoptees full access to their birth records, including their parents' names.
Other states that have unsealed birth certificates include Alabama, Delaware, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Massachusetts. Kansas and Alaska were never sealed them. Right now, bills are pending to unseal adoption records in New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Minnesota.
But the bills are facing some strong opposition.
Members of some Catholic groups worry that passage of these bills might lead more women to have abortions. Groups like the National Council for Adoption, which argues for the rights of mothers who gave up their babies, said that if birth mothers or adopted children really want to find each other, they can list their names in registries set up by states.
There are no laws that promise birth mothers anonymity, but many women who gave up their children for adoption did so after agencies reassured them and social workers that the records would remain sealed.
"Marie," who refused to be identified, put her baby up for adoption nearly 20 years ago. She fears that if her husband and children find out about her secret all these years later, it will tear her family apart.
"To just rip open people's lives when you really don't know what their experiences have been that have caused that decision in the first place is something to me that is, I mean it's almost cruel," said "Marie."
But Paula Benoit believes it was cruel to keep her identity a secret. And she finally learned the names of her birth parents. She also discovered something else she never could have imagined. Two of her colleagues in the Maine legislature, State Sen. Bruce Bryant and State Rep. Mark Bryant, are her nephews.
"I just sat in the chair and thought, 'Oh, my gosh,'" said Benoit.
"The major shock is that she's serving in the Senate," said Bryant. "I'm serving in the Senate, and we're in the same building."
Paula Benoit said unsealing her birth records has changed her life. She wants that experience for all adoptees. Despite the promises made to mothers made in the past, she believes today that people like her have the right to know.