Sunday, July 26, 2009

Birth Certificates

One of the current wingnut obsessions going around is the idea that Barack Obama isn't really an American citizen. He was born in Kenya, goes the theory, and "slipped into Hawaii by his mother," and his U.S. birth certificate is a fake. (Details of this ridiculous story come from Willie Brown's column today in the San Francisco Chronicle.)

In the first place, if this were true, it would have come up during his Presidential run, and it would have gotten him thrown out of the race. The McCain-Palin team would not have let that slip by.

In the second place, this birth wasn't in East Waterless Ford in the middle of the 19th century - this was the State of Hawaii in 1961. Hawaii had been a state of the Union for 2 years in August 1961, and the birth certificates issued then were as valid as any. There's absolutely no evidence for challenging Barack Obama's birth certificate.

Willie Brown made an interesting point in his column, that he himself never had a "formal" birth certificate - his birth in 1934, in Mineola, Texas, was only recorded in the family bible:
I had to get what was called a delayed birth certificate. In other words, we had to go back and find people who lived in Mineola, who were citizens themselves and who swore that my mother had a little boy on the date that I said I was born.
Mineola, Texas in 1934 may not have been East Waterless Ford, but I think you could see it from there.

For that matter, my own father was born in 1907 in Wolf Creek, Missouri (which is even closer to East Waterless Ford than Mineola) - and his birth certificate, along with a whole load of other information that makes doing genealogy in my family a challenge, went up in smoke in the 1930s when the county courthouse in Wright County, Missouri burned.

A lot of people, especially older people from poor rural areas, have questions about their civil documents; but Honolulu, Hawaii in 1961 was not a poor rural area. The whole idea is absurd, and its only purpose is to make noise. If you want to read some of the reasons it's crazy, take a look at this entry on

Is Barack Obama a natural-born citizen of the United States?

Oh, and the birth certificate he displayed on his campaign web site because of all this dreck isn't a forgery, either.


  1. Our Director of the State Department of Health is a little peeved at having her agency's honor impugned, too.

  2. What I find amusing about this is that when people bring it up around here, and they do it A LOT, they always say there is no proof that it was a real birth certificate, even though it has been certified by the State of Hawaii. What more proof do these people need? The only reason anyone's birth certificate is "real" is that it was certified by the state.

  3. I am not a conservative politically. Also, I am not a wing-nut or a loose cannon.

    Further, I haven't the least interest in proving, one way or the other, whether Obama was actually born in the United States. The provision of native-birth in our Constitution as a requirement for Presidential office may be outdated, but I'm not preoccupied with it, and I'm perfectly content that Obama is our President.

    Nevertheless, people need to be aware that there is NOTHING sacred, or necessarily accurate, about the data on state birth certificates issued in America, particularly those issued before about 1980.

    The Obama birth certificate (which has been publicly displayed in PDF format on the internet) constitutes legal proof--acceptable in any reputable court of law--that he was born in Hawaii on August 1, 1961, but it really doesn't "prove" that fact in reality. In order to understand why, you have to know something about how specific documents were created, and under what conditions their accuracy may be questioned.

    In many states, the "report" of a birth was not a requirement of law. The "report" itself was usually notoriously vague in its requirement. A physician could report it, hospitals would often report it, but in many instances a parent or relative could report it. Often the "report" of the birth followed the event by many days, or weeks, or even months or years. "Delayed" certificates were issued under many different conditions, and usually the information offered as "secondary" proof was flimsy, at best. As a matter of fact, babies are often moved from state to state, and across borders, without verification of their identities. This used to be more common than it is now. We live in an increasingly bureaucratic and document-obsessed world; but it hasn't always been this way.

    It is perfectly possible that Obama was the child of another woman, or was brought to Hawaii at some point previous to his alleged birth date. Given the ethnic and social issues associated with his mixed parentage, it is altogether possible that an irregularity in birth registration would have occurred. If the child was not born in a hospital, and the report of birth was not by a physician, there is no substantial reason to assume that the certificate itself was based on an accurate report. In other words, we have to have more information about the circumstances of the report and the birth itself, to know how reliable the data printed on the certificate really is. For legal purposes, the document we have meets the requirement. As to whether it's a reliable report, that's a deeper question.

    My own BC, for instance, is an "adopted" replacement version. But nothing on its face would tell you that. It was created by a court order as a result of my legal adoption by my stepfather, so that my actual birth record would be inaccessible except to lawful authority under special circumstances. There are also "corrected" birth records which substantially change original reports--either to rectify errors, or to alter their affect.

    My point is not in creating a question about Obama's qualification for office, but only to point out that older birth certificates aren't as reliable as some would choose to believe.

    In Willie Brown's case, there is no real proof whatsoever about his birth--its place, its time, the parentage, or anything else. He might have been born in Mexico to Jamaican parents six months earlier than stated. This is either comforting or troubling to people, depending on what your perspective is.

  4. Curtis has a point about older birth records; but Obama's birth certificate is as good as anybody could expect from 1961, and is only being challenged because he won the election, and impugning the legality of his birth is the only weapon the wingnuts have. I'm being polite by saying "wingnuts" - the correct word, of course, is "racist."

    As for Willie Brown's birth, I think you're being too cynical about sworn testimony from neighbors in a small town, unless you make the really cynical assumption that they bribed someone.

  5. My point, as I tried to make clear, was not to question the advisability of accepting birth certificates. We do need something upon which to base facts of date and place of birth, and parentage, and inheritance etc. That's all fine.

    But the people who raise the issue of the validity of a record to establish facts "not in evidence" have, on their side, the flimsiness of birth records generally. There's a wide variation in the probative value of certificates around the country, and (especially) around the world.

    Again (again!) I'm not saying anyone lied or would have had reason to lie about Willie's birth. The point is that it isn't "proof" in the real sense--there's a general tendency to rely on these records as proof but they are only conveniences, they're finally only what someone "thought was" or "wanted to be" true. I worked for 27 years for the Social Security Administration--and probably prepared 300 proof of age special determinations. We often used entries in family bibles--do you think what a parent wrote in a bible really constitutes anything reliable?