Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, January 18, 2016

Birthers, Birth Certificates, and Bullshit

Why Birth Certificates Are Proof of Nothing

Barack Obama's Certificate of Life Birth,
released by the White House
and posted online in 2011

First, an explanation—I’ve created this blog in order to write about women’s history, and my post today isn’t about women’s history, women’s issues, or feminist perspectives. Well, since it’s a bit about me, and since I’m a woman, I suppose I could argue that it’s a post about a woman’s history, but that’s stretching it just a bit.

And second, a disclaimer—while I am an unreconstructed and unrepentant political liberal of the old-school tax-and-spend, bleeding heart variety (which should be pretty obvious to anyone who’s read any of these posts), and while the very act of writing about women and their history is most certainly political, what I have to say here about birtherism is not intended to be political, at least not in the sense of being a defense of or an attack on any particular candidate or party. I am not engaging with Tea Party conspiracy theorists still intent on proving Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya or with Trump supporters now intent on disproving Ted Cruz’s status as a “natural born” American citizen eligible to become president of the United States.

Rather, what I am focused on is the myth of the truth and inviolability of the birth certificate. When it comes to the “issue” of birtherism and the document that is supposed to be the “proof” of anything, it’s bullshit. Because when I look at my birth certificate—my official, state of Missouri-issued, proof of my American citizenship—it is a tissue of lies. 

Here's the truth. I was born in 1951. My mother and father were divorced in July of 1957, and my mother remarried just a little over a year later, in August of 1958. At some point after her second marriage, my original birth certificate was altered, and although much of what it now says is a lie, these state-sanctioned lies are, everywhere and for every official purpose, regarded as the truth. 

The copy of the birth certificate I have in front of me right now, my “official” birth certificate, headed “The Division of Health of Missouri Standard Certificate of Live Birth” and “filed 7/28/51,” proclaims “THIS IS A CERTIFIED COPY OF AN ORIGINAL DOCUMENT” and warns, parenthetically, “(Do not accept if rephotographed, or if seal impression cannot be felt.)”

Well, despite all its capital letters, seal impressions, warnings, and claims, this is not an “ORIGINAL DOCUMENT.” And I know it, even though no state or federal agency seems to care.

The first time I remember seeing my birth certificate was when I needed to show it for some reason or another at college. (If I’d needed it to get a California driver’s license, and I am assuming I must have, my mother must have kept it in her possession.) 

I remember being shocked the first time I saw it—I’d always known that when my mother remarried, my stepfather had adopted me and my sister, I'd always known my name had changed, and I'd always known my mother’s scorched-earth efforts to expunge my natural father from my “history” were never to be challenged (my younger brother had no idea that our mother been married before, or that my sister and I were, in truth, his half sisters, and he didn't find out until well into his teenage years).

Despite all this, I hadn’t realized that my birth certificate had been changed as well. As a young person, I found it more than unsettling. It was, and remained, deeply disturbing. 

Decades later, after a professional career focused on writing and teaching women’s history, I finally decided to recover a bit of my own. And so, quite naively, I filled out the Missouri Bureau of Vital Records “Application for a Vital Record,” had it notarized, wrote out a check for $15, and mailed it in, along with a cover letter asking for a copy of my “original” birth certificate. 

What I got back was a copy of the document I’d had all along. But I knew that wasn’t my original birth certificate. On this document, the “Child’s Name” is not my birth name—not the name I'd had for the first eight years of my life. My stepfather is listed as “Father of Child”—while I still keep his last name, I have always known that he was not my father for the first eight years of my life. (No matter how Orwellian my mother’s efforts at erasing and rewriting history, even she couldn’t erase my memories, though I kept them to myself.) The other particulars are my stepfather’s as well—his age, his place of birth, his occupation.

The document’s information about my “Place of Birth” is a little tricky. My birthplace is listed as “St. Louis,” but neither the “Yes” or “No” box is checked under “Inside Limits.” So, even this document seems a bit uncertain about whether I was born in the city of St. Louis or not, maybe because the “Usual Residence of Mother” lists an address in Florissant, Missouri. The falsity of this last bit of information is readily apparent—a quick online search of the address that was supposedly my mother’s “usual residence” in 1951 easily reveals that the house wasn’t built until 1953, and I am pretty sure that we didn't move into that house until 1954, at the very earliest. 

And there is a weird, unexplained date on the document. Although the certificate claims to have been “Filed 7/28/51,” there is a second date stamped in the lower left-hand corner: “Sep 24 1959.” It had taken me many years even to see this second date, and a few more to work out that this must have been the date the birth certificate was altered and reissued.

It took me the better part of a year to get a copy of the original original birth certificate—you know, the one that was actually issued when I was born, the one that was my birth certificate for the first eight years of my life and that reflects the reality of my birth. I finally have it, and it’s now folded up and included with the other one—the not-original "original" and official one that is filled with lies. Interestingly, while that revised and reissued document is stamped and sealed and covered with bureaucratic claims of being “certified” and “original,” this one—the truthful one—is stamped all over with “Void,” “Cancelled,” and “Superseded.”

But, there it is: my birth name, the one I never forgot, my father’s name, the one I never forgot, and my place of birth, St. Louis, with no equivocation. That’s where I was born, as the address listed under “Usual Residence of Mother” makes clear. And in the long process of getting this void, cancelled, and superseded document, I learned that, as I had come to suspect, the “Sep 24 1959” stamp was the date the amended certificate was reissued and the first one, although not destroyed, was sealed—I was never supposed to have it.

While the details of my own birth certificate(s) are uniquely important to me, my situation is not at all unique. There are millions of Americans who have birth certificates much like mine—documents that were changed and altered to suit someone’s needs or preferences or comfort or convenience, documents that are officially regarded as the truth, documents regarded as some kind of holy writ, unalterable and eternal. 

Except of course these documents are proof of nothing. These documents are . . . Well, frankly, these documents are, as I've said, pretty much bullshit. And having a birth certificate that is filled with lies, that robs its holder of his or her history, can cause a lifetime of pain. (For only one essay on this topic, “Why My Amended Birth Certificate is a Lie,” written by adult adoptee Amanda H.L. Transue-Woolston, click here.)

The birth certificate of Eleanor Darragh,
mother of Ted Cruz

While I might be ready some day to write about my efforts to recover my own personal history, that is not the purpose of this post. Rather, it’s to point out the utter nonsense of birthers and their blind faith in documents that prove nothing.

To counter the birthers who claimed he was born in Kenya, Barack Obama released the short form of his birth certificate in June 2008. But that wasn’t enough, and so the so-called long form, the Certificate of Live Birth,” was posted on the White House website on 27 April 2011.

And to counter the attacks on his status as a “natural born citizen,” to prove he is the child of an American citizen, Ted Cruz released his mother’s birth certificate, published online in January 2016. 

But the reality is, of course, they prove nothing.

The most recent comment posted at the Brietbart News website, where Eleanor Darragh Cruz’s birth certificate was published, reads “Case closed.” 

Pardon me while I laugh my ass off.

Update (30 October 2016): For a story about another woman's reflections on a birth certificate full of lies, you may be interested in "Melinda and Judy," Episode 53 of Phoebe Judge's Criminal podcast: "When your very arrival in the world is marked with a fake birth certificate, you learn that you can't believe everything that you see." (To listen, click here).

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