This City Could Make Birth Certificate Changes Easier For Patients Of Abusive Doctors

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Marissa Hoechstetter felt dizzy when she found her daughters' birth certificates in a box more than three years ago. The doctor who delivered her twins had sexually abused her while she was a patient, and Hoechstetter knew then that she wanted his name removed from the documents that would follow her children for life. Officials told her "no" at every turn. But now that may change: A council member has introduced legislation in New York City would allow birth certificate changes in cases like hers.

Council Member Mark Levine, who chairs the city council's health committee, will introduce a bill Thursday that would require the city health department's Office of Vital Records to redact a physician's name from a birth certificate where that doctor's medical license has been revoked, suspended, or surrendered. Hoechstetter's doctor, Robert Hadden, admitted to professional misconduct and surrendered his license after pleading guilty to charges of criminal sex act in the third degree and forcible touching in 2016.

"This is what should happen," Hoechstetter tells Bustle. "It should be something that a legislator looks at and says, 'OK, we have oversight here, we can fix this.' We talk a lot now about supporting survivors, and often our ability to actually do that, whether through legal mechanisms or legislature, is actually quite limited. So being able to pick away at that and actually do that in my case is really overwhelming for me."

Hoechstetter first revisited her daughters' birth certificates in spring 2015 while preparing to register them for kindergarten. They're now 7 years old. In an op-ed for Bustle last month, she wrote:

When I finally found the documents, my stomach turned. I felt dizzy and sat down. There, listed under "name of attendant at delivery," was Robert Hadden. He had brought my children into the world. He had also used my body for sexual gratification against my will. How had I missed seeing this before?

She began researching how to change the name of the "attendant at delivery" on the certificates. Hoechstetter tried every angle. She contacted the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, local officials, and state officials. She says she was told she'd need an order from the State Supreme Court to make the change, since the doctor's name wasn't there in "factual error."

So in November, Hoechstetter — along with more than a dozen other survivors — filed a lawsuit against Columbia University and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, which employed Hadden, alleging that the hospital was aware of the doctor's actions. Included in the survivors' suit was a demand to allow changes to birth certificates where Hadden was listed. In response, Columbia University Medical Center said at the time: "The accusations regarding Dr. Hadden remain deeply troubling, and we have treated them with the utmost seriousness."

Mark Levine. Courtesy of NYC Council

That lawsuit is ongoing. But in the meantime, Levine's legislation could help alleviate the trauma of any woman in New York City in a situation similar to that of Hoechstetter and Hadden's other survivors. Levine says the next steps are to hold a public hearing on the bill and then a vote in the health committee. If that vote is successful, the full city council will vote on the bill.

Levine is optimistic about the legislation passing. He points to the merits of the policy, of course, but also to the power of Hoechstetter's voice. Plus, a similar bill passed just a few months ago: In September, the city council passed legislation allowing New Yorkers to change the gender marker on their birth certificate.

"People understand that the birth certificate is a document of enormous practical and symbolic power," Levine tells Bustle. "That's why we wanted to give New Yorkers a chance to change their gender markers, and that logic extends to this."

"This is something we need to do for every New Yorker who in the past ever faced this kind of abuse or in the future ever will," he adds. Levine hopes to have the public hearing in early 2019.

Hoechstetter says she hopes the introduction of this legislation gives comfort and strength to other survivors, brings awareness to the issue of sexual abuse by medical professionals, and reminds survivors that people are out there working to support them.

"I feel a bit validated," she tells Bustle. Later, she adds, "I'm making a law, you know? It's kind of amazing."