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Adoption Politics, Bastard Nation and Ballot Initiative 58 (review)
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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36.2 (2005) 299-300

Adoption Politics, Bastard Nation and Ballot Initiative 58. By E. Wayne Carp (Lawrence, University of Kansas Press, 2004) 238 pp. $25.95

Adoption Politics is the story of a successful 1998 ballot initiative that granted Oregon adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. Carp tells the tale with insight and verve. His narrative of the campaign is at once an assessment of the fundamental clashes that emerge when adoptees seek information about their birth as well as an in-depth account of the politics of policy change through state initiatives. The combination makes the book an intriguing example of contemporary history.

Carp's story focuses on the individuals and organizations that fought over the initiative. He describes the range of individual motivations and tactical decisions that animated the conflict. Particularly compelling is his ability to convey the hopes and fears both of adoptees seeking birth information and of birth mothers and adoption agencies worried about the impact that the release of that same information might have on them. This clash of rights and interests serves as the centerpiece of Carp's story, as they did of the campaign itself. Equally important, the book reveals the intricacies of interest-group politics in present-day America, especially the power of organized groups like Bastard Nation, an adoptee rights organization, to frame critical public-policy issues.

Throughout the narrative, Carp highlights the significance of individual actions and choices in the creation of public policy. Most notable is his explanation of the campaign organizers' crucial decision to present adoptees' access to birth records as a fundamental issue of civil rights and equal protection rather than one of psychological need and medical necessity. In its discussion of the determinative role played by those hired to obtain signatures on petitions in getting the initiative on the ballot to the critical role of the internet as an electioneering tool, the book becomes a case study of grassroots politics in America.

Adoption Politics is a work of social history rendered in clear, direct prose. It's most critical source is oral history. Carp's success in giving voice to those on all sides of the initiative demonstrates his skill as an interviewer while also giving his analysis depth and credibility. The interviews are also placed in context with conventional institutional sources, most notably legislative acts, judicial rulings, agency records, and newspaper articles. These materials allow Carp to situate the 1998 campaign within a larger framework of debates about adoption that arose during the twentieth century. Carp's determination to place recent events in a comprehensive context marks Adoption Politics as a work of history.

In the end, the primary subject of this book is captured in its title. Carp's is a story with a clear moral: The successful Oregon initiative should be recognized as a model act that effectively balances the rights and duties of all those involved in an adoption. As a result, Adoption Politics is addressed most directly to those concerned about adoption. Yet, lingering in its pages is a second, less directly articulated argument about the nature of political action in early twenty-first century America. At a time when every political season brings a bumper crop of initiatives and referenda, Carp offers a cautionary tale about the possibilities and problems of making policy through ballot measures.

Michael Grossberg

Indiana University


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