As the law stands, an adopted person has no way of accessing their medical history. They have no way of finding out if there’s a history of heart disease in the family. Or cancer or any number of hereditary diseases, writes Clodagh Finn.
It is a cruel thing to carry a question mark at the centre of your being for most of a lifetime, as adopted people in Ireland often do. I know that because, as one of those people, I knew next to nothing about how I came into the world until I was 26 years old.
After sending several requests for my birth records to the health board — as the HSE was then — I eventually got an answer to one of my letters seven years after it was written. It began: “We apologise for the delay in writing…” I rolled my eyes at that, but at least the single page of stiffly written correspondence opened a door that would lead to answers to the thousands of tiny questions that had built up over a lifetime.
What happened after that was a display of generosity and openness from all the people involved — my adoptive parents and my natural parents — illustrating that it’s possible to navigate some sort of a path through an emotional minefield without having the reassurance of a template.
Some 50,000 other adopted people in Ireland have had no such luck. And luck, unfortunately, does come into it. To find simple information about their origins — a basic human right — an adopted person often has to rely on good will, a great deal of personal determination and sheer luck to work through the bureaucracy and secrecy that has kept information from them for decades. If the Government ever gets around to publishing the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill, that might finally change.
Minister for Children Katherine Zappone introduced the Adoption (Amendment) Bill last month, allowing civil partners to adopt, but she did not give a definite timeframe on the second bill, saying it would be published “as soon as possible this year”.
We’ve heard that before — every government since 1997 has said the bill was a priority yet nothing has happened. The delay makes us look archaic and inhumane internationally, but that’s the least of it.
What it means for the thousands of people who, in contravention of best international practice, have been denied the right to information about themselves and their natural parents is much harder to quantify.
For some, it’s just the little, inconsequential things that can’t be explained: an extra milk tooth during childhood; an unexpected turn for drawing; a shock of unruly raven-black curls; left-handedness.
For others, it has far-reaching implications. As the law stands, an adopted person has no way of accessing their medical history. They have no way of finding out, for instance, if there’s a history of heart disease in the family. Or cancer or any number of hereditary conditions that might travel down the blood line.
Even if the legislation comes into force, that won’t necessarily change. What access to a birth cert is likely to reveal is little more than a date of birth, a first name, a place of birth and the mother’s full name.
Though, for many, that is already something momentous.
I can’t describe what it means to put flesh on a person who has, for years, been the subject of guesswork and wild speculation. It’s as if a vital piece of the jigsaw has been slotted into place but that long-awaited information does come at a price.
Many adopted people worry their adoptive parents will be upset by an attempt to trace natural parents, or that to do so is some sort of betrayal. They worry, too, that they might be disrupting their natural mother’s new life. It doesn’t help that a Supreme Court ruling in 1998, which found that an adopted person’s right to their identity must be balanced against their mother’s right to privacy, has been used as an excuse to delay the bill.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has even suggested a referendum may be needed to introduce this legislation, though experts have dismissed his claim.
It is encouraging, at least, to hear Minister Zappone say the new bill will favour the disclosure of information but, here’s the crux, “in so far as is legally and constitutionally possible”.
Let’s not use that as an excuse to delay and agonise over a piece of legislation that has been introduced with ease in several other countries around the world. In England, adopted people have had a right to their birth cert on turning 18 since 1975. Here, it’s easy to let the heavy blanket of secrecy assured in the mothers and babies homes of the 1950s and 60s to trip us up today.
Without diminishing the experience of those women, it’s worth pointing out that even State Papers are released to the public after 30 years. How long are adopted Irish people expected to wait to get these guarded shreds of information? Of course the women who gave their children up for adoption with the promise of anonymity all those years ago deserve respect, sensitivity and understanding, but what about the rights of adopted people?
Will they, as has been suggested, be denied their birth records until they sign a statutory declaration not to contact their natural parents in cases where there is no consent? If so, I can’t quite put into words how that makes me feel. Maybe like a thief in the night.
That is not to minimise the anxiety of a woman who fears an unexpected knock on the door exposing a closely guarded secret. I’m just saying it’s time to acknowledge the heartache of adoptees too.
The delay in legislation has brought other heartaches. If it had been in place, Philomena Lee, whose search for the son she gave up for adoption became an Oscar-nominated film, would have been reunited with him before he died.
How many others will be reunited with “headstones in cold and lonely graveyards” while waiting for the Adoption Bill to pass? as the Coalition of Mother and Baby Homes Survivors has warned.
Minister Zappone, can you give us an answer please?
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