Barack Obama's Birth Certificate, 1961
The authenticity of President Obama's birth certificate was called into question and has remained a topic of debate. There's an even more basic question here: What is a birth certificate? It's one of the most personal documents we have.
How many pieces of paper have you got? We’ve all got them—those papers that record things we’ve done, like diplomas or awards, things we’re enabled to do by licenses, or milestones in our lives such as marriage certificates. These are the sort of things you keep, and keep safe, some for sentimental purposes, others because they might be needed someday.
But they’re not, by and large, things anybody generally looks at either frequently or very closely. Maybe your driver’s license gets a once-over now and then at a traffic stop or a bar; border agents seem to have more fiddly ways of poring over passports every year. Maybe you swap looks at office ID cards. But who ever looks really hard at, say, your birth certificate? I haven’t looked at mine in years, I know it’s around here somewhere, and yet I’m still me, so far as I know.
There are circumstances, of course, when otherwise unregarded documents get scrutinized closely—like checking a college transcript when starting a new job, or submitting a birth certificate to get a passport. Once in a great while, though, typically when the potential stakes are very high, that scrutiny can be very public, very uncomfortable, and not always completely conclusive.
Let’s get this over with—I have no way of knowing whether the image on my computer screen, from the state of Hawaii’s web site, represents an authentic birth certificate or not. It seems highly likely that it is; there’s been lots of questions, discussion and supporting evidence about it, and knowledgeable people, including the relevant state officials, appear to be convinced. Moreover, most of the people who continue to doubt largely come off like kooks, so I’m going to go with yes. Not everybody’s convinced; polls routinely show that 20-30% of Americans think it’s a fake—bearing in mind, however, that 79% also think that the government is keeping UFO secrets from us. It’s been ruled legal, he was elected president, so we’re moving on, without even dwelling on the whole John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone/was that really the United States thing.
For any such “official” document, it’s meant to document something, and its authority comes from where and how it was issued. Most of us have no way of independently authenticating a birth certificate or most other kinds of documents; in the vast majority of cases unless you see something obviously wrong, like a college transcript with white-out on it, you take them at face value, and when there is a question, you ask the people in a position to know whether it’s right or not, and that’s that.
The authenticity and trustworthiness of these documents is partially a matter of look and feel—you expect higher-quality paper, professional looking printing, maybe chips or holograms or other physical devices. All of which can be forged or faked with various levels of difficulty. It also comes from the chain of people and processes by which a document produced and maintained; the more secure those are, the better you feel.
There’s an even more basic question here: What is a birth certificate? It is what it says, a certification of the circumstances of the birth of a baby. (Many certificates, as does the Obama one, specify “live birth,” to distinguish it from a fetal death certificate). This one has the sorts of details you’d expect to find: baby’s name, date, time and place of birth, parents’ names, occupations and races, signature of the attending physician, and so on.
It’s one of the most personal documents we have, actually the first one we get (if you don’t count fetal sonograms, I suppose). It’s the only one that follows us through our entire lives, cradle to grave, when it’s inevitably joined by a death certificate. It allows people to prove parentage, inheritance rights, and citizenship, apply to drive, vote, get a passport or Social Security. It’s the initial link in a chain of documentation of our identity and status; without that chain, in important legal and societal ways, you don’t exist, and this is the origin of the term “undocumented.”
It also has to be right. Instructions on filling out birth certificates stress the importance of care; if “Billy” is entered, then “Billy” is your name, not “William” and it takes legal action to change that. Misspellings also may lead to misfiling which can render a document unfindable. A 1967 handbook from the US government gives several pages of detailed guidelines and standards: use a good typewriter ribbon, don’t erase, complete every item, don’t abbreviate. For children conceived or born out of wedlock, make no entry for the father’s name. And if the child is born on a moving conveyance, register them as if the birth occurred in the place where they were first removed from the conveyance. Much of this is to assist the compilation of vital statistics, which are of great use to demographers, planners, researchers, public health officials and the like. Like any form, it’s also meant to ensure the certificate’s accuracy, quality, consistency and reliability, making life easier for people who have to work with them down the line.
It’s not just running for president that gets your birth certificate a good looking-at today. The 9/11 Commission recommended federal standards for identity documents, and the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act mandated minimum standards for birth certificates, including safety paper or other security measures to prevent tampering, counterfeiting or duplication. Congress stopped short of requiring a single national design or form, though it did impose some vague controls on getting a copy of somebody else’s; understandable, though that might unintentionally complicate the work of future genealogists and historians. Of course, that would also mean getting a hard copy of the Obama birth certificate really shouldn’t be that easy...
A number of kinds of legal documents are becoming natively digital. Many court systems, for example, encourage or require digital submission of filings, and electronic signatures are increasingly commonplace. Lots of other familiar printed forms—newspapers, magazines, ,checks, have already ventured down that road. Some documents, though, seem to have a more personal or legal connection, like a will or a mortgage, or seem somehow more important. For those, it feels better, more secure, to have something tangible to hold on to, so digital versions of those seem less likely to be embraced quickly. It could be, then, that this first and most basic document we get will be one of the last pieces of paper that future generations have.
snopes.com: Barack Obama Birth Certificate. (2012, March 17).
Todd B. Tatelman. (2005). Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004: National Standards for Drivers’ Licenses, Social Security Cards, and Birth Certificates. Congressional Research Service.
U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare Public Health Service. (1960). First Things and Last.
U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare Public Health Service. (1967). Hospital Handbook on Birth and Fetal Death Registration.