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The right to know

 “So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.”

— Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

A few times a year I might get asked about my family history, usually at medical appointments with the kids. I never quite know what to say. I never knew what to say either when people made comments when we were kids about the fact that my sister and I were both about a foot taller than our parents. More recently though, my experiences as a parent have brought my experience as an adopted person into very sharp focus. Not long after the kids were born, the film Philomena came out, portraying a very dark side to recent Irish history regarding coerced adoptions, unwanted babies, heartbreak, denial, and secrecy. There was a stampede of politicians rushing to condemn how terribly people had been treated, the like of which has not been seen until someone dropped a ticket for Hill 16 outside a meeting of Fine Gael senators. These same individuals have been sitting on promises to adopted people regarding their rights to know who they are since 1997.

I think 100 years on from the Easter proclamation, history will show we are going through a time of great and welcome change in our Republic. Great issues of morality and personal rights and responsibility are being addressed. The marriage equality referendum was for the most part a glorious affirmation of a more pluralist Ireland, although the negative feelings some of the discourse passed off as debate must have inspired in our LGBT relatives and friends has been too easily forgotten. The debate on the 8th Amendment, which I confess as an adopted person I frequently cannot avoid flinching from, will ultimately, I think, result in a more compassionate and humane system than that which currently exists.

For those already adopted though, the Ireland of the 1960s remains fully entrenched. Adopted people in Ireland are unable to access even the most basic information on their background. This nexus of denial and subterfuge leaves us alone among our European neighbours. 

‘You see, plenty of people are pro-life, but once you’re born you can go to hell ‘

In England, adopted people have had a right to their birth cert on turning 18 since 1975. Although every Irish government since 1997 has said a bill on adoption information and tracing was a priority, nothing has happened. When Minister for Children Katherine Zappone introduced the Adoption (Amendment) Bill in May, a few short weeks after her appointment, allowing civil partners to adopt, she refused to give a definite time-frame on the second bill, saying it would be published “as soon as possible this year”. Something adopted people have been hearing for several years now. Even this miserable Bill includes a provision that the adopted person be denied their birth records until they sign a statutory declaration not to contact their natural parents on penalty of imprisonment. 

My own journey in tracing started with a three-year wait for the most basic ‘non-identifying’ information, which was only truncated by a complaint. Once this morsel had been digested, I then joined the back of another queue to wait to be suitably vetted by a social worker to decide if I was a fit and competent person to be entrusted with my own birth certificate, my identity, my history. This is because our Government has decided that my right to know is secondary to the fear that I or maybe one in 1,000 people like me might risk going through all that rejection and grief again, by turning up unannounced on the doorstep of some suburban hausfrau who wants nothing at all to do with us, embarrassing decent people and generally frightening the horses.

We couldn’t be having that.

You see, plenty of people are pro-life, but once you’re born you can go to hell. And people from all parts of the political spectrum are all for adoption rights, but once you’ve actually been adopted then that, my friend, is where your rights end.

With every year that passes on a waiting list, the chance grows greater that should I ever be reunited with my birth mother, it will occur in a windy graveyard.

 And nobody really cares.

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