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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Susan Pearson about her book, The Birth Certificate: An American History

Our member, Prof. Susan Pearson (Northwestern University, US), talks about her new book, The Birth Certificate: An American History (University of North Carolina Press, 2021).


Q: What is this book about?

The Birth Certificate: An American History is about how birth registration became compulsory and universal in the United States. The book traces not only how (and why) states learned to create, implement, and enforce birth registration but also how (and why) birth certificates became identification documents. I argue that birth certificates are not transparent windows onto the truth about people, but that they are social and political documents whose use and contents change over time according to the needs and demands of the present moment. Birth certificates, I show, became central to the administration of an “aged” state that opened and closed the doors to rights and entitlements on the basis of chronological age.

Of interest to members of the Childhood, Law & Policy Network, in particular, may be the extent to which my book centers on how birth registration has been driven by politics and policies related to child protection. For example, the very first pamphlet published by the United States Children’s Bureau after it was created was entitled Birth Registration: An Aid in Protecting the Lives and Rights of Children. The Bureau undertook a multi-decades long campaign to improve birth registration in the US because it was so central to so many of their goals from tallying the true infant mortality rate to enforcing child labor and compulsory schooling laws.

Q: What made you write this book?

I first started thinking about the history of birth registration in 1997, my first year as a graduate student. I was starting work on my master’s thesis, which was about child health (or “better baby”) contests in the United States during the Progressive Era. As part of that research, I was looking at some publications from the U.S. Children’s Bureau and I came upon the 1914 pamphlet on birth registration that I mentioned above. Though I was busy on another project, I was completely captivated by the idea that something that was so commonplace – the fact that we have birth certificates – was until so recently not something that could be taken for granted. I was very influenced at the time by the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault who had the idea that one way power operated in society was by producing the categories that we used to think about the world, and I could certainly see that birth certificates were important to that work.

At that time, I did a little poking around to see if any historians had written about the history of birth registration in the U.S. All I could find were a couple of articles published by demographers in the 1950s, so I tucked this topic away in my mind as something that I wanted to learn more about later on down the road. In the meantime, I finished my master’s thesis and went on to write my PhD dissertation, which became my first book, The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America. When I was done with that, I returned to birth certificates in the hopes that I could make their history my next book project.

Excerpt from the book (pages 3–4 and 20):

This book describes both sides of that story: how birth registration became universal and how birth certificates were transformed into portable identification long before any other forms of identification were routinized and standardized. Reformers from the 1830s through the 1950s convinced municipalities and states to adopt laws requiring registration at birth; they taught city clerks and state registrars to value “human bookkeeping” and to issue standardized forms; they convinced policy makers that birth registration could be a source of important public health data; they encouraged parents to value birth registration and to cherish the token of that act by pasting their baby’s certificate into a baby book or framing it on the wall; they pushed states to make birth certificates into proof of age for employment and old-age pensions or proof of race for access to marriage, schooling, and land; and they argued that, because birth certificates were made by disinterested state officials, these documents were more trustworthy than the testimony of neighbors and more reliable than dates scrawled into the family Bible.

We know that these campaigns were successful not simply because the contemporary United States has universal birth registration. Success is measured also by what it means to fail. Anyone without a registered birth, or without easy access to their birth certificate, is at a severe disadvantage. Indeed, birth registration is considered so fundamental to modern citizenship that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child names it as a fundamental human right. Birth registration affords children official, legal personhood: a name, a birth date (and therefore an age), a family, and a country. Birth registration makes a child known to a state, and a child who is known can be more easily protected from being forced to marry, soldier, or work underage; a child who is known belongs to a country and is entitled to its protections and entitlements. A child who is known can move freely and return to her country of origin. A child who is registered has legal parents who have legal obligations to her.

Across the world more than 290 million children (or about 45 percent) under the age of five do not officially exist. While most of those children live in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the undocumented are at a disadvantage no matter where they reside. Around the world, an estimated 1.1 billion people are unable to prove that they belong to their country of birth or residence. In the United States alone, approximately 7 percent of citizens, or 13 million people, most of whom are poor, cannot prove their citizenship.

A person who cannot prove who they are and where they were born can easily be pushed to the margins, and beyond the pale, of citizenship. In the modern United States, this is precisely the effect of federal laws such as the REAL ID Act, which mandates that states validate birth certificates for the issuance of driver’s licenses or state IDs; voter identification laws in states that require voters to submit state-issued identification at the polls; or federal regulations that require applicants for Medicaid and other benefits to supply state-issued identification. For anyone without a birth certificate, or for anyone who does not know how to obtain theirs or who cannot afford the fee to obtain a certified copy, the most basic rights of citizenship are tenuous. Perhaps 1 percent of all detainees in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody today are U.S. citizens who simply cannot prove their citizenship.

Just ask Mark Lyttle, who was erroneously identified as Mexican by prison officials in North Carolina. Unable to produce his U.S. birth certificate, in 2008 Lyttle was released into Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and deported to Mexico, despite having been born in the United States, speaking no Spanish, and having no kin there. Until his brother could locate his birth certificate and fax it to a U.S. consulate, Mark Lyttle was a stateless wanderer, shifting homeless through Mexico and Central America. This is the reason that the word “undocumented” applies to those residents who are said not to belong in the United States. Citizenship may be a birthright, but its documentation is what counts. …

Taken together, the chapters trace the career of a document from a marginal, little-used, and poorly attended-to form of record keeping to a central and universal form of identification. Those who promoted birth registration, whether as a form of population knowledge or as a form of identification, hoped that proper laws, forms, and record-keeping practices could create stable, uniform knowledge. In practice, this often failed—not only because doctors, midwives, and clerks often deviated from the letter of the law as they failed to register births or to fill out forms properly but also because ordinary people contested the categories that governments devised to know them by. More than anything, these conflicts remind us that selves are made, not born.



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