Vital Records vs Public Records

The “birther” thing came up again recently. I don’t really know why, because you can get a copy of that birth certificate on a coffee cup. One of my colleagues at the day job has one.

The whole controversy makes me twitch, because a significant number of people in the U.S. seem to think they have the right to possess a copy of the birth certificate of a perfect stranger. This tells me they have no clue that a vital record isn’t a public record, and they do not have any right to an unrelated citizen’s vital information.

My mother worked for the Idaho Bureau of Vital Statistics as a microfilm technician during the 1970s and 1980s. She converted century-old records of births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and adoptions to the hi-tech record-keeping medium of the day.

As a result of mom’s esoteric job, I learned the difference between a vital record and a public record. A vital record is proof of identity. Nobody has the right to get a copy of my vital records but me or a first-degree relative. And both I and any first-degree relative have to prove identity by submitting a photocopy of government-issued ID, both front and back (and pay the fees), first.

The Idaho Bureau of Vital Statistics has no sense of humor, no good faith, and no direct contact with the public. You have to make a record request by mail, fax, or internet form (via a 3rd-party company that charges almost as much as the certificate fee).


This is the case even for presidential candidates who otherwise give up all rights to privacy. (By the way, neither presidential candidate for the 2008 election was born in the continental U.S.; John McCain was born on a military base in the Panama Canal Zone. Interesting trivia.)

Okay, this is where the political references stop, because the reasoning behind the confidentiality goes far beyond politics.

You can use a birth certificate to establish a new identity; you only need a birth certificate to get a Social Security number (I certainly had no other ID when I was six — mom got SSNs for all three of us; I needed one so she could put the car-accident settlement in a savings account). With a birth certificate and a Social Security number, you can get a driver’s license, a passport, and a life.

Posing as a family member to request the birth certificate of a person who died in childhood was a thriving activity in the 1970s. Most of the staff of the Bureau back then was devoted to researching every request to make sure it wasn’t fraudulent.

The confidentiality of vital records protects everyone born, adopted, married, or divorced in the United States. So be thankful there’s a difference between a vital record and a public record. It keeps Coneheads from ruining your credit.

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