"If I can be completely honest, at times I wish I had never been born… I was not given the gift of honesty growing up."
These words come from an adopted person in Ireland, someone who has been forced to endure the state’s efforts to erase and silence the nation’s adopted community. Ireland’s adoption system is completely closed. Under this sort of system, anyone involved was expected to act as though nothing had happened, that they were in no way affected. This silence seeps into the lives of both birth parents and adoptees, working in the state’s favor to make them believe they should not discuss the injustices done to them.
Ireland has not always been honest about this part of its history, nor has the country allotted proper reparations to those affected by the practice. Adoptees’ identities have been hidden from them and natural mothers have lost children to this culture of silence, secrecy, and shame.
On October 3rd, 2022, Ireland’s government attempted a measure to redress past wrongs when it passed the Birth Information and Tracing Act, first introduced by Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Roderic O’Gorman, into law. The legislation, on paper, means that thousands of Irish adoptees can, for the first time, apply to receive a copy of their birth certificate and early life information, including information detailing the circumstances of their adoption. Within the past month, over 4,600 people have applied in the hopes of gaining greater insight into who they are, a right that has been denied to them previously.
This legislation is a historic step forward for those who have been desperate to access this fundamental pillar of their identity. Applicants will have unrestricted access to their records, which until now were heavily redacted.
The new statute, however, is far from a perfect solution. Obstacles remain, such as birth mothers not being given access rights through this act and the fact that the information adoptees have been waiting decades for may have been falsified or destroyed. One bill will not make up for seventy years of pain and suffering.
Claire McGettrick, author and adoption rights advocate, outlines additional obstacles in a recent Twitter thread. She points to the statutory requirement forcing adoptees whose natural parents do not consent to their identities being revealed to attend a mandatory workshop on privacy rights. These mandatory consultations enforce the harmful ideology that adopted people cannot be trusted, that they are incapable of empathizing with others. "It’s inequality enshrined in law and an unnecessary additional blow to people who are already hurting," McGettrick wrote of the requirement.
James Smith, Associate Professor of English and Irish studies at Boston College and co-editor of Redress: Ireland’s Institutions and Transitional Justice, also finds issue with the new law, stating that the bill is, in essence, "penalizing adopted people, for fear they will ‘door-step’ their natural parent." "Door-stepping" refers to adoptees showing up at their natural parent’s place of residence regardless of their contact preferences, something Smith adds there is no evidence to support in an Irish context. This fabricated notion harms those like McGettrick, an adopted person herself, as they must work to overcome the stereotypes that follow them in order to make their voices heard.
Patricia Carey, CEO of the Adoption Authority of Ireland "understands" why many may be upset over the recent act, but she asserts that "this has gone way farther than lots of other legislation." Carey has worked to listen and adapt to the frustrations brought to her; she often brings people "'in the tent'" to hear their grievances and see what can be done to refute such upset through her position. She is used to the criticism her efforts have received and strives to "underpromise and overdeliver." Carey knows that, as a state employee, there are limits to just how impactful legislation can be.
Carey believes that for legislation to work, "people affected by the past have to be involved." Smith echoed such sentiments, citing the disastrous outcome of the 3000-page mother and baby home report made public in 2021 by the Irish government. 550 survivors of these institutions were interviewed by the Confidential Committee, yet their testimonies were treated as mere "stories," deemed to be "contaminated" and later judged to hold little evidentiary value to the report’s findings. To prevent such mistreatment from occurring again, survivors must be recognized as "the experts in the room when these matters are discussed," Smith said.
When asked if she believes the current legislation can make up for what natural mothers and adoptees were subjected to, Carey stated, "I don’t think we’re there. I think we have a long way to go."
While American media outlets have discussed the mounting controversies surrounding the bill, many articles fail to address the shame, stigma, and silence related to adoption in Ireland, and how this culture continues to impact natural mothers and adoptees today. Many narratives miss the point of why this truly matters.
David Drustrup, a therapist for the Northwestern Family Institute, explains in his report "The Hidden Impact of Adoption" that in the general public’s eyes, adoption provides children with a safe, loving home to parents who were previously struggling for a child. So as not to shatter this image, a child is discouraged from questioning what their life may have been like if they had not been adopted, or who their biological parents are, as this would presumably upset their adoptive parents. Such a society constantly reminds children of adoption that they should be grateful for their second chance at life.
Drustrup contends that "adoption remains the only trauma that he or she is lucky to have."
To gain perspective on why the new legislation is needed and just how mishandled previous attempts to address these issues have been, Ireland’s complex history regarding its handling of adoption practices must be examined.
Though legalized in Ireland in 1952, informal adoptions had been taking place under troubling circumstances for many decades. Ireland’s culture of shame, following from the close bonds between Church and State as well as an entrenched patriarchal social order, created a society that afforded little room to people who did not follow its invisible rules. Unmarried pregnant women fell into this category, and many were sent away to mother and baby homes—establishments that would house them before and after giving birth to their so-called "illegitimate" children. For the other thousands of women who were not placed into these homes, their children were still taken from them. There was no escaping this culture.
These institutions were emotionally and physically abusive, as nuns, priests, and other officials would verbally berate these women and require that they do harsh physical labor up until the point of their child’s birth. June Goulding’s memoir, A Light in the Window, describes her experiences as a midwife in one of these homes, wherein she bore witness to just how unjustly these mothers and their children were treated. Most memorably, Goulding relays that women were not allowed to make noise while giving birth. They were to suffer in impossible silence because, as nuns made very clear, it was the woman’s fault that she was in such a situation.
The first mother and baby home was founded around the same time as the birth of the state in 1922. During this time, though forced adoptions were not unique to these establishments, women had almost no choice but to give up their children. Consent was rarely informed and freely given; very little education on the subject was accessible. Even after 1952, adoptions were forced upon mothers. There was no support offered and it was not uncommon for signatures to be forged. The Irish state and the Catholic church ripped children from their mother’s arms. In Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s public acknowledgment and apology for mother and baby homes, there was no mention of the adoption system. Silence, shame, and stigmatization live on.
The new act glosses over the rights of natural mothers. Adopted persons (i.e. the children) can now access their personal information in the state’s possession. Natural mothers are still denied these rights, even in 2022. There is still a fight to be had in advocating for proper treatment and acknowledgment of the trials these women were put through and are forced to relive every day.
Smith stated that regardless of the steps taken through this recent legislation, natural mothers "are still left behind. They are left excluded."
Smith often says that "there were no father and baby homes," alluding to the acute misogyny that drove much of the horrific circumstances natural mothers were and still are subjected to.
Carey hopes that even with the current, precarious situation, other countries will learn from Ireland’s experience and come to realize their own complacency around this issue. "Every culture where people are vulnerable, you’re going to have exploitation," Carey insisted, "and in some instances exploitation where children are relinquished without someone’s consent."
Pointing to Fintan O’Toole’s recent piece in The New York Review of Books, "Irish Lessons," Smith too challenges recent political commentary that views adoption as a ready-made solution to crisis pregnancy.
"Given the actions of the Supreme Court in terms [of] reversing Roe v. Wade and some of the discourse that came out of certain states… where adoption was put forward as somehow 'the solution' to 'unwanted' pregnancy, I think those politicians, invariably male, might to do well to look at Ireland and its recent history to think through and evaluate critically some of the easy assumptions about adoption and its legacies."
As disappointing as Ireland’s recent legislation may be, there is something to be said for the light that has been shed on the adoption community because of its passing. "Every time there is a story in the paper or there’s a movie or there’s a media piece, we get a couple hundred people coming to us. So that’s why it’s really important to keep it as a current topic," Carey explained.
Proving Carey’s point, Smith said that he had received two emails in the last month alone from people here in the US desiring to find out more about their family’s past. "They are still coming," Smith said of survivor testimonies.
The Information and Tracing Act of 2022 has sent waves through the adoption community. Whether some in that group believe it to be adequate or lacking in its tactics, others are learning who they are in ways they could not before and speaking out against past grievances. There is still an onus on the Irish government to take full responsibility for Ireland’s past and facilitate appropriate redress and reparation. In the meantime, advocates like Claire McGettrick and others are helping their fellow adoptees navigate the new Information and Tracing procedures by providing a step-by-step guide, so as to enable them to answer questions many of them have been asking for a lifetime.