There are also practical barriers. Many countries lack the technology or capacity to register each birth, even if doing so is mandated by law. And some countries only register babies born to married parents. Even if they want to register, some parents might not be able to if they cannot afford to travel to a location where births are registered or if they cannot cover the cost of issuing the certificate itself. There are also concerns that governments will misuse registration records eventually, whether for prejudicial policy, compulsory military service, or even ethnic cleansing. In the Soviet Union, “Jewish” was one of the 69 nationality options on birth certificates. Designating Soviet citizens as Jewish enabled discrimination against them, such as by limiting which colleges they could attend.
Some logistical hurdles have been tackled with more funding and resources to vital registration systems, or by making registration more convenient for parents. For instance, Tanzanian parents can register their children via text message, and mobile clinics in Indonesian villages bring birth certificates to new parents. The governance and trust issues, however, are more challenging to address.
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Sometimes the state sees, and documents, its citizens differently than how they see themselves. Gender identity is one such area. In some places, transgender advocates have come under fire for proposals to make gender markers and names optional or amendable on birth certificates.
Overall, legal changes relating to birth certificates show how quickly the law is catching up to social attitudes about sex and gender. In the early 2000s, intersex individuals in Australia sought and received replacement birth certificates that left gender unspecified. But these documents were issued on an ad-hoc, retroactive basis. Later laws, such as one passed in Germany in 2013, officially allowed parents to leave the gender box on birth certificates blank.
In the Philippines, the gender on a birth certificate can be changed in the case of “a clerical or typographical error.” A hard-won legal precedent for changing the gender designation for identity reasons also exists. In a 2008 ruling of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, Jennifer Cagandahan obtained the right to change the name and gender on her birth certificate.
But these examples are outliers. In some places, gender markers on birth certificates can only be changed following gender-reassignment surgery. In many others, even that option is disallowed. This creates a situation where an adult whose gender identity isn’t reflected on their birth certificate might also be stuck with their birth-certificate gender on all the other official identity markers that are derived from it, such as ID cards and passports.
Other types of identity point out how arbitrary certain labels and designations are. One of these is race, which is marked on some birth certificates. Vivian Morris was born in 1969 in Montgomery, Alabama—the town where Rosa Parks famously refused to move to the back of the bus. On Morris’s birth certificate, her Korean mother was listed as white. At the time, there weren’t standard racial categories to choose from, and registration officials had more say. Morris tells me, “I always assumed that she was lumped in with white in Alabama, versus black, because those were the only recognized races back then in the Deep South.” Her experience exposes the gaps between bureaucratic permissibility and the complexity of racial identity. Those gaps haven’t fully closed since Morris’s childhood either: Some U.S. states still don’t allow multiracial children to be marked as such on their birth certificates.