There is an irony about the information booklets offered by the
Adoption Board, the quasi-judicial quango that oversees adoption in
the Irish Republic. Of the seven booklets, five are about
inter-country adoption, advising Irish couples to complete their
families in China, Romania or South America.
Yet it is less than 30 years since the country brought to an end a
quarter of a century of exporting its own babies. During this
period more than 2,000 infants were sent overseas, mainly to the
US. In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, there were often no
assessments, irregularities were rife, some adoptions were illegal,
babies were often adopted sight unseen and birth certificates were
Now some of those who went across the Atlantic, along with people
adopted who stayed in Ireland, find themselves embroiled in a
controversy that was settled in the UK more than a quarter of a
century ago – their right to seek their birth parents.
Adoption became legal in the Irish Republic in 1952, since when
40,000 people have been adopted. But the new Adoption Contact Bill
has failed to reform some of the country’s antiquated practices.
For example, the child of a married couple, or even of a couple who
marry after its birth cannot be placed for adoption, and widowed
people cannot adopt.
The present controversy derives from decades of inaction, secrecy
and the fear that the past actions of the voluntary (church)
adoption agencies may be exposed to public scrutiny.
Until the bill becomes law, the Irish Republic will be almost alone
among western countries in not allowing adopted people a right to
their birth certificates. Many attempt to trace and some do find
their birth parents. But it is never easy. Adoption certificates
show only the child’s date of birth, the address at time of
adoption and the adoptee’s new name. Voluntary adoption societies
are notoriously reluctant to offer information. Waiting lists can
be as long as five years. The Adopted Peoples Association has a
three-year-old web-based contact register with more 2,600 names, 90
per cent of whom are adopted people. Fifteen reunions have
Susan Lohane, herself adopted and a UK-based member of the
association’s executive committee, says the Adoption Board is
“obstructive” about the release of information and resorts to
arguments about birth mothers’ privacy. The Freedom of Information
Act does not cover private organisations (that is, church-run
agencies) and also excludes the board.
“There are two views,” says Lohane. “There is the ‘fallen woman’
who would taint us if we came into contact with her or there is the
unfortunate woman and if we met her it would upset the apple cart,
as if she had never thought about the adoption once it took place.
My mother told me that she had thought about me every single
The bill was announced in May 2001. A general election later it is
still to be introduced into the new dail (Irish parliament). The
bill proposes a national records index, a voluntary contact
register, counselling when required, state-funded mediation,
support for tracing and reunion and access to a national search
service to help both adoptees and birth parents.
At first sight this may seem to solve the problem and liberate
adopted people as well as grant a right to birth parents which they
have hardly anywhere else. Yet, claims Lohane, this is meaningless.
The argument against the bill for adopted people is that the
legislation is not retrospective. Two classes of adopted person
would be created: those adopted after the bill’s enactment, who
will enjoy greater access to their files, including information on
both birth parents; and those adopted before its enactment, who
will have access only to restricted, non-identifying information.
The curiosity is that, with few in-country adoptions and the
practice of open adoption, the greater rights for “new” adoptees
will be largely unnecessary. For them, anyway, the bill will have
no practical effect until 2020 if it became law this year.
Sharp disagreement about the bill stems, in part, from Ireland’s
divisive adoption history. Ruth Kelly, a social worker and
chairperson of the Council of Irish Adoption Agencies (CIAA), says
the council has no clear view about access to files, although it
supports the bill as its stands. This is because its 17 members all
have different policies rooted in different histories.
After months of behind-the-scenes lobbying and talks with the
Department of Health and Children, adopted people are now opposing
the bill. The CIAA, the Adopted Peoples Association and the
Adoptive Parents Association favour a veto register; the Natural
Parents Network does not.
Anton Sweeney, chairperson of the Adopted Peoples Association
(APA), says: “We believe that knowledge about a person’s origins
belongs to that person.”
His association accepts that the names of some people mentioned in
files – such as siblings – could be deleted and believes that birth
mothers should have the right to correct wrong information, update
the file and comment on anything they disagree with or that is
disparaging, but that the file should be available to the adopted
The most radical step – allowing birth parents access to records to
find their children – has alienated the Association of Adoptive
Parents (AAP). This would place the Irish Republic with only New
Zealand in having such a system as opposed to, say, the UK where
voluntary agencies run informal intermediary services.
According to the AAP’s public relations officer, Helen Scott, the
association has long favoured the right to information – “a civil
and human right” – but tempers that by saying “bearing in mind the
circumstances of the original family”.
There are two objections to the bill, she says. First, it gives the
addresses of adopted children to birth mothers, even though from
1952 to 1988 all details of adoptions, including addresses, were
officially published as court records. Second, the association
believes that birth parents should not be allowed to contact their
adopted children until the child is 25 rather than 18 as stated in
the bill because of the possible “emotional fall-out”. A veto, says
Helen Scott, “is a difficult thing to allow an 18 year old”.
The Adopted Peoples Association, which proposed the veto register,
thinks the veto should have to be renewed every 18 months.
Experience in New Zealand is that the numbers of renewals diminish
Bernie Harold, chairperson of the National Parents Association
(NPA), believes a child’s reunion with a birth parent can only be
for the good. “In my case, with my son, he was the better for
having a sense of self; it enriched him,” she says. “I felt ashamed
when people asked how many children I had and I replied ‘two’, and
then I felt proud when I corrected myself and said ‘three’.”
Lohane found her late mother but the adoption agency refuses to
give her information she believes it has about her father. She
says: “When I think of the efforts that were made to reunite
families after the war or, more recently, in places like Rwanda,
and yet because I was adopted when I was two months old I am denied
knowing who my father is, that’s a nonsense.”
The mothers, the NPA feels, have been written out of history – they
would often have been forced to take false names in the mother and
baby homes or Magdalene laundries where their babies were born and
it was common for baptismal and birth certificates for new-born
adoptees to have adoptive parents listed as the birth parent.
“While in other countries adoption may be a triangle, in Ireland
it’s just one straight line ending in a cul-de-sac – and we’re
expected to stay firmly behind the barrier and out of sight,” says
NPA secretary Rhona MacManus. “Adoption,” she asserts, “is about
The government has said that the bill indicates the country has
“grown up”. For some it looks more like it is experiencing a