The pain of secrecy enforced


On summary conviction, the kind of offences for which you can expect 12 months in jail include assault, poisoning, false imprisonment and threatening to kill someone. The latest to be added to this list, if the Government has its way, will be the offence of seeking out your natural mother, writes Mary Raftery

This appalling proposal is contained in the heads of the proposed Adoption Information, Post-Adoption Contact and Associated Issues Bill, published earlier this month by the Government.

Head 7 of the proposed Bill deals with the establishment of a National Contact Veto Register. This is described as "an administrative mechanism for protecting the privacy of adopted persons and birth parents". However, it is in reality nothing more than the continuing legal enforcement of the secrecy surrounding adoption which has caused such pain to tens of thousands of parents and their children.

If an adopted person, having been informed that his or her natural mother is on the Contact Veto Register, attempts even to write her a letter, then he or she will be judged to have committed a criminal offence. The same applies to a natural mother attempting to contact her child.

The criminalisation of both mothers and their children in this regard is nothing new in Ireland. Until the 1980s, the landscape was dotted with mother-and-baby homes, where unmarried women were consigned to give birth in conditions of shame, secrecy and hardship.

The nuns who ran these institutions referred to "first-time offenders". These were women or girls on their first extramarital pregnancy. Specific mother-and-baby homes were set aside for their use; these women were judged capable of reform, and it was their children who were considered most suitable for adoption.

Other institutions were reserved for "recidivists", many deemed beyond saving. The criminal language extended to their children, many of whom were committed by the courts to industrial schools. There was a deeply shocking view that such children were in some way tainted by the circumstance of their birth, and at risk of inheriting whatever genes may have led their mothers to repeat "offences".

As a society, we like to comfort ourselves that such dangerous notions are firmly in the past, of no relevance in today's progressive society. However, last month's proposed Adoption Bill displays a philosophy that is firmly rooted in that secretive and disgraceful past.

Brian Lenihan, the junior Minister responsible, has claimed that natural mothers had been guaranteed "confidentiality", and that this needs to be upheld. However, nowhere in the Adoption Act, 1952, is confidentiality mentioned, and testimony from countless natural mothers denies that they were ever given guarantees in this regard. Many signed blank forms, some had their signatures forged, and the vast majority were coerced into giving up their babies by the cruelty of a society that condemned them out of hand.

For the Government to now argue that "confidentiality" can permit the criminalisation of adopted people who seek to be reunited with their mothers displays a particularly perverse and wilful misunderstanding of the past. It is also bizarre in the context that all birth certificates, which automatically contain the mother's name, are public documents, available for general inspection.

There are other and considerably more humane ways of assisting those mothers and children who fear contact with each other. Adoption Ireland (the Adopted People's Association), in its highly detailed submission to the Government on the new Bill, suggests a Contact Preference Register, whereby people would be informed of the unwillingness of the other party to establish contact. In these circumstances, and with care, tact and counselling, the hurt and pain could be minimised on all sides.

There are several other aspects of the Government's new adoption proposals which are equally reprehensible. One example is the creation of two separate categories of adopted people, distinguished only by their dates of birth. Those born subsequent to the enactment of the new legislation will have an automatic right to their birth certificates on reaching the age of 18. All other adopted people will have no such right. Their natural mothers or their adoptive parents will by law be able effectively to veto such access.

Most of us take our birth certificates for granted. They tell us who we are and where we came from. It is unthinkable that we would be denied such information. However, the 42,000 adopted people in this State appear in this regard to have lesser rights, to be judged as second-class citizens.

As Brian Lenihan sweated his way through an interview on RTÉ's Prime Time a few weeks ago, it was clear that the Government's thinking on the rights of adopted people has so far failed to progress much beyond the concepts of secrecy and shame which have informed so many of this country's attitudes towards those who fall outside our traditionally myopic definition of the family.