THERE'S a ''sleeper'' rights movement in America that is likely someday to attain its goals. But the victory will have to come largely through compassion and understanding, not resentment and confrontation, because the issues involve the most precious and fragile of human institutions: the family.
The movement's advocates, who now number in the millions, identify their cause in terms of ''the adoptee's right to know.'' Many argue that those who have been adopted, in contrast to children brought up by their natural parents, are second-class citizens. They have little or no access to their birth records. State laws make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to trace their ancestry. They point out that attempts to open sealed files, except for health-related reasons, have been rebuffed by the courts and staunchly opposed by groups of adopting parents.
Emotion often runs rampant on both sides. Some adoptees in search of such records charge that the system violates their civil liberties, denying them information readily available to others. On the other hand, parents' groups and public and private agencies warn that removing the stamp of confidentiality from adoption records could lead to irreparable harm to families and break down long-standing relationships between adoptees and their adoptive parents. It could also invade the privacy of birth parents - particularly natural mothers who may not want stunning revelations.
When an issue is so socially sensitive, solutions don't always come easily or quickly. The hard-liners who demand open records may have to live with gradual change.
There is some movement, however. Although only three states - Alabama, Kansas , and South Dakota - allow adult adoptees access to their records without a court order, 10 other states maintain voluntary registries, at which both the parents who gave up their children and adults who know they were adopted can list their names and perhaps find each other. New York, the latest state to go this route, also requires the consent of adoptive parents to inaugurate a search. This stipulation will soon be dropped, however, with new adopting parents being put on notice about the registry, instead.
Beyond the registries, pressure is mounting for the establishment of a national clearinghouse to accomplish on an interstate basis what state registries do. US Sen. Carl Levin (D) Michigan has introduced a bill along these lines. His legislative aide, Jackie Parker, says such a federal adoption listing is necessary, since many adoptees are born in one state and adopted in another.
The clearinghouse concept has several advantages. It lowers hurdles for many who want to search but don't know where to start. It also helps establish a track record so lawmakers can assess whether cracking the doors of secrecy leads to hope or heartbreak.
If the experiment is successful, it could well prod all states to move along the road to registries - and, in time, to the total lifting of government restrictions from adoption records.
The United States might also do well to look at the experience of Britain, whose birth records have been open to adult adoptees since 1975. Finland follows similar procedures.
Meanwhile, American adoptees' lobby groups - including the New York-based Adoptees Liberty Movement Association (ALMA), Colorado's Orphan Voyage, and Yesterday's Children in Illinois - will doubtless continue to offer private help to those who want to find their birth parents.
ALMA's Florence Fisher, an adoptee who, virtually on her own, found her natural parents and brother, has for more than 15 years helped reunite more than 11,000 adult adoptees with their birth parents. But Mrs. Fisher has been unsuccessful in attempting, through a class-action suit, to get New York to open its adoption records. ALMA plans similar litigation in California and perhaps Colorado.
Probably the nation's most ardent advocate of the adoptee's right to know, Mrs. Fisher insists that the real issue is not privacy or confidentiality, but ''justice for the individual. Give us (adoptees) the same rights as other human beings,'' she pleads.
In principle, she is correct. Adoptees must not be second-class citizens. But as restrictions are lifted, fears must also be allayed, and relationships between adoptees and the ''parents'' who brought them up need to be be strengthened - not weakened or threatened. We must not act out of resentment, vindictiveness, or outrage.
About 10 percent of America's children are adopted. Most are made aware of this at an early age. Those adopted after infancy often have an ongoing relationship with a birth parent - with the full blessing of their adoptive families. This is becoming more and more common.
Meanwhile, we must remember that only a small percentage of those adopted - some put it at several hundred thousand of an estimated 5 million total adult adoptees in the US - actively seek out their biological parents. Many more wonder about their biological roots but are content to claim the parents who have raised and nurtured them as their own.
A true family, it has been pointed out more than once, is not so much a question of genetics but of love.