The right of a birth mother to privacy should not be allowed to prevent adopted children from getting access to their birth records, an Oireachtas committee has been told.
In an emotional address to the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children, Kathy McMahon, founder of the Irish First Mothers' Group, whose eldest child was adopted in 1974, said mothers never sought nor were offered confidentiality when their children were adopted.
“Instead, we were threatened to never contact our children again,” she said.
The committee is examining the proposed Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill, which aims to allow adopted people access to their birth records.
In order to access records, adopted people will be required to sign a statutory declaration obliging them to respect the wishes of birth parents in cases where they do not wish to be contacted.
The release of birth certificates will not be automatic and could be refused if there were “compelling reasons” for this.
The protection of a birth parent’s privacy was partially based on a Supreme Court decision in 1998, which sought to balance the right to identity and the right to privacy and took into consideration that birth mothers may have been promised confidentiality.
Ms McMahon, who spent time in the Good Shepherd Convent in Co Meath during her pregnancy, said that cohort of mothers did not exist. Her memory was of “mothers screaming” at the forced removal of their babies.
She said all the mothers in her group, which has 50 members, were opposed to vetoes on information being given to adopted people.
Rhoda McManus, of Adoption Loss, also said it was not true that mothers were promised secrecy. They contracted to lose all their rights and responsibilities, she said.
Ruth Barrington, on behalf of Treoir, said birth mothers “sought and were guaranteed privacy”.
“There is a small number for whom the prospect of disclosing to their families that they gave a child up for adoption is a source of great distress and fear,” she said.
“Their situation needs to be handled with the greatest sensitivity and balance.”
Dr Conor O’Mahony of UCC said the constitutional impediments to adopted persons accessing birth records were “greatly overstated”.
“The bare minimum should be the right to a birth certificate,” he said.
“I don’t believe there is any constitutional reason or any justification for qualifying that right.”
He also said international human rights law obliged the enactment of the legislation.
Dr Fergus Ryan of NUI Maynooth said the initiative was long overdue. He said the right to privacy was important, but could not be “a trump card”. Privacy could not be “hijacked” to “keep a lid on illegal adoptive practice”.
He also said there needed to be clarity around the “compelling reasons” for refusal of access.
Mary Slattery, of Know Your Own, who also had a child adopted, said a definition of the term “compelling reasons” could not be left “in the hands of the birth mother and a social worker”.
The only compelling reason could be “a serious risk of suicide”, she said, and it had to be backed up with medical evidence.
The committee heard from more than a dozen stakeholders, including from The Adoptive Parents Association of Ireland, Adoption Loss, Adoption Rights Alliance, Know My Own and the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors.
All of the groups agreed adopted people should not be charged fees for the information and tracing service, which is to be supplied by the Child and Family Agency.
They agreed there should be some effort to allow for the transfer of information from the National Adoption Contact Preference Register, set up in 2005, which already contains 11,500 entries.
Helen Gilmartin, of the Adoptive Parents Association of Ireland, said the information should not be wasted.
Paul Redmond, of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors, said the State had a duty to tell people they were adopted in cases where they were illegally adopted, and did not know.
“If they are victims of crime, they should be told,” he said.
He urged for speedy enactment and a short lead-in time for the legislation. Otherwise, people would end up “reunited with headstones in cold and lonely graveyards”, he said.
Concerns were raised by many contributors about the requirement for an adopted person to sign the statutory declaration obliging them to respect the wishes of birth parents about contact.
Patricia White, social worker with the Barnardos post-adoption service, suggested the declaration was “not the way to go”.
She said counselling about rights and privacy for the adopted person in advance of being given a birth certificate would be more appropriate.
Committee chairman, Jerry Buttimer TD, said Thursday’s was the final session on the heads of the proposed Bill.
The committee will submit a report to Minister for Children James Reilly for consideration before the Bill is finalised, he said.