My youngest sister had a baby when she was an unmarried teenager. This was some decades ago, when abortion laws and misguided morality made things difficult for someone who was pregnant and unmarried. She told me she was pregnant, and though I encouraged her to tell our parents, she decided to conceal her condition by wearing larger-size clothes. When she gave birth at the hospital to a healthy boy, our mother talked her into having the baby adopted. My sister signed the adoption papers with the proviso that her identity as the mother not be revealed to the child. A few years later, she married. She and her husband have a daughter, but while her husband knows about the adopted son, I don’t believe their daughter does.
Last year, I was researching our family tree on Ancestry.com — a public one, viewable by anyone looking for relatives — and received a message from a man who said he’d been born in the same period and place as my sister’s first child was. He’d been adopted and was looking for his birth mother. He wouldn’t reveal his name, as he wanted to protect his adoptive parents, who were still living. It didn’t occur to me then that this man could be my sister’s adopted son.
My reply included the name of the town and state where my family lived but didn’t reveal any family names. I encouraged him to check the county-court records. He replied that he’d tried, but the birth mother had closed the birth record to inquiries. He managed to find my Facebook page and saw a picture I had posted of me and my sisters when we were young. It was a shock to read his next message about how his children bear a striking resemblance to one of my sisters in the photo. He said that he’d always wondered about his birth mother but could understand if I didn’t want to help him. That it must have been a difficult situation and decision. I didn’t reply to him because I didn’t feel that it was my responsibility to confirm or deny his request. He stopped inquiring, and I wrestled with whether or not to tell my sister.
Do I have a moral obligation to tell my sister about this situation? Do you think she would want to know that he is married and has children? Should her daughter know she has a brother? Name Withheld
Two issues are central to how you should think about this situation. One is that this man — who, let’s assume, is indeed your sister’s biological son — wants to know more about his birth family. This matters a lot. The other is that your sister decided that she did not want him to be able to do so. This matters a lot, too.
Your sister’s decision was made in the light of prevailing attitudes of the day. Those may no longer be the attitudes prevailing in our day, but the decision was one she had the legal right to take.
Did she have a moral right to take it? It’s a debated point. Some people think that knowing your biological ancestry is a basic right, which means that the adoption agency and the adoptive parents should not have promised your sister confidentiality. Indeed, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child says that a child has, “as far as possible, the right to know . . . his or her parents.” The philosopher J. David Velleman has argued, to this point, that it’s wrong to prevent people from knowing their ancestry, because for most people such knowledge plays an important role in the development of personal identity.
All things being equal, I’ll grant, an open or semi-open adoption is preferable to a closed one. I recognize that this man may have lost something of value in not knowing who his birth mother was. I accept that facts about ancestry regularly play an important role in the personal identities people develop. That a resource is important, however, doesn’t mean that you are damaged without it. Almost all the facts about your biological family that shape your identity can be substituted for by an adoptive family; what can’t are facts about the experience of people you believe resemble you for genetic reasons. But you can develop a proper identity perfectly well without those facts. Some well-adjusted adopted children simply have no interest in their biological ancestors.
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
Confidence in your own impartiality should be much harder to come by than it is — the psychological literature on this is compelling. And if you try to correct for the risk of favoritism, your own students might be unfairly treated: Someone with your scruples (someone, that is, who would write a letter like this one) might bend over backward in an effort to be fair. On the other hand, you’re only one vote in five, and there may well be other people on the committee with students competing; it is, you say, a small college. The ethical considerations in either direction, then, are not overwhelming. What’s critical is that you and your fellow committee members are transparent about such connections in your deliberations.
Kwame Anthony Appiahteaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)