Women who gave up their children for adoption should not be made to suffer twice
For many mothers, their adoption decision was a deal made with a guarantee of secrecy
At present the rights of the adult adoptee to know their birth mother conflicts with the right of the birth mother to her privacy. Photograph: Getty
The discussion in the Senate on the Adoption and Tracing Bill brings to mind interviews I did in 1998 with women who were planning to give up their babies for adoption as part of the Women and Crisis Pregnancy study.
Adoption was one of three ways of responding to a “crisis” pregnancy for these women, the other two being single motherhood or abortion. For many women interviewed, the possible revelation of the sexual behaviour that led to their pregnancies, augmented by stress and fear, was what led to defining their pregnancy as a “crisis”.
The pregnant women we interviewed who were planning adoption were not in traditional mother and baby homes. They had been offered private accommodation by a voluntary organisation with links to adoption agencies.
They found it very difficult to continue a pregnancy with the knowledge that they would later part with their babies. In many cases their families were either not aware of their position or, if they were, offered them no support as future lone mothers. Abortion and secret adoption had two things in common: if a woman took either option, no one would know that she had had sex and got pregnant. Both protected family respectability and kept premarital sex hidden.
The interviews were heartrending. The women knew abortion was an alternative option, but they were opposed to it. “It was not the baby’s fault; it was his and mine,” one woman told me. Another said “I feel myself maybe, in later years, [the child] might think, [the mother] had the option of an abortion and, you know, she did not take the easy way out; at least she brought me into the world”.
They also feared the stigma of lone motherhood and the disgrace their pregnancy might bring on their families. For many mothers, their adoption decision was a deal with a guarantee of secrecy.
Adoption is an institution which has been based on the welfare principle of the best interests of the child. Adoption also allowed couples who were not in a position to have their own children to exercise their right to a family life. The secrecy that was an essential core of the legislation on adoption in the US, UK and Ireland enabled the adoptive parents to treat adoptees as their own children with the equivalent rights to birth children in terms of inheritance and so on.
There is less secrecy now. Many people will know adults who were adopted and do not hide that fact, while many adoptees appreciate (especially when pregnant themselves) the ultimate sacrifice their birth mothers had made for them.
We all probably know – albeit fewer – birth mothers who gained the mental strength to contact their adopted children and introduce them to the subsequent children. So we have accepted that there are new forms of family lives and many have a birth mother and a social mother. We also know that many adoptees want to find out their birth mothers and the details that surrounded her decision-making at that time. So they try to trace her by getting access to their adoption records.
The dreadful revelations of the Tuam baby burials and the treatment of mothers in mother and baby homes has increased the needs of many to locate their mothers and see whether they have siblings. The adopted children (now adults) still want to find out more about their family origins, and Article 8 of UN Convention on Human Rights supports the rights of adopted people to know about their family of origin. In response, other states have promoted this by setting up adoption registers and facilitating people in tracing their birth mothers.
As elaborated upon in this extensive Bill, Minister Zappone has been charged with rounding up all these adoption files held by a variety of adoption agencies, many of which are old and handwritten. it proposes to set up a central adoption contact preferences registry, so adoptees who seek information can begin at this “one-stop shop”. Once the register is in place it is hoped adopted children can first see if they are registered and then seek access to their files. Presumably, birth mothers might also engage and seek to find out what happened to their children or say on their files that they give consent to their details being provided to their birth children, if they come to seek that information.
This is ambitious but with new technology and archival resources it seems very feasible.
But many mothers may not be ready to consent to release their names to their children. Over time, and once the system is up and running and trusted by all - over time increasingly birth mothers may give their consent voluntarily.
At present the rights of the adult adoptee to know their birth mother conflicts with the right of the birth mother to her privacy.
One could argue that the birth mother has already paid a heavy price for the secrecy deal that was a central component of adoption legislation. Further, recent Data Protection legislation suggests that if she is still living, her consent must be obtained before her name is given to any adult adoptee, albeit her biological child.
Each has a right to privacy in respect to family life and equal weight must be given to both. It would be dreadful if a birth mother was to suffer a second time at the hands of new State policy. They would be victims of changing social mores for the second time.
Evelyn Mahon is fellow emerita of the school of social work and social policy at TCD