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Opinion Last week, birth information became accessible - but the law doesn't go far enough

Adoption rights campaigner Claire McGettrick says the State’s recent conduct in this area must be recognised as a war of attrition.

LAST UPDATE | 11 Oct 2022

ON MONDAY LAST, Ireland’s first statutory adoption information and tracing services opened.

Along with my colleagues in the Adoption Rights Alliance and the Clann Project, I have been campaigning for these rights and services over the past two decades.

Adopted people first began to organise in the early 1990s, so this moment has been a long time in the making.

Arguably therefore, last Monday should have been an immensely positive day but, as has happened with many other milestones in our work, my colleagues and I are left with mixed feelings.

On one hand, I am delighted that at least some affected people will get the answers they deserve; on the other, I am hugely apprehensive, because I know the long struggle is far from over.

‘Paternalistic reflexes’

The root of my ambivalence can be found in the Birth (Information and Tracing) Act 2022, which signifies a step backwards for equality in Ireland because it enshrines discrimination in law.

Even as the legislation establishes statutory adoption information and tracing services, this system is not open to all affected people — most mothers, most relatives and many other affected people are excluded from applying for information and records under the new system.

Moreover, adopted people are now categorised as untrustworthy in the eyes of the law – if one or both of our parents register a preference for no contact, their now adult children must attend a mandatory information session about their parents’ privacy rights before the State will give us our own birth certificates.

In addition — and I would very much like to be proven wrong in this regard — experience tells me to be cautious in having confidence in the system now envisaged. We’ve been given assurances that our records will be released without redactions; we’ve been told that ‘nothing will be held back’.

Nonetheless, the ways in which ‘relevant records’ and categories of information are defined under the legislation appear to indicate that much of the contents of our files will be withheld. Data controllers in this area have a poor record, to say the least, and the new legislation leaves much open to their interpretation.

How all this will work in practice remains to be seen. Paternalistic reflexes do not disappear overnight.

Trust levels in the adoption community are low, and with good reason. We raised significant concerns about the legislation as it made its way through the Oireachtas, but Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman ignored our objections and rushed the Bill through.

Even as he was claiming to have listened to affected people’s concerns, the minister simultaneously refused to accept most of the 300-plus amendments which had been guided by those individuals’ lived experiences and put forward by opposition TDs and senators.

Issues arising

Problems are already evident for people seeking family medical history under the new system. During the passage of the Bill, the Minister refused to remove the statutory requirement that this information (which will already have been redacted) can only be shared via a medical practitioner.

As a result many people who do not have a GP, and others who live overseas and are subject to different medical systems, are now unable to apply for their family medical history. This condition cannot be waived by Tusla or the Adoption Authority; it can only be altered via a change in the law.

I am also ambivalent because this legislation represents a missed opportunity for our nation to take a significant step forward in dealing with the impact of human rights violations in this area.

By denying mothers a statutory right to their records, the State is perpetuating Ireland’s culture of secrecy and shame. Granting mothers the right to access their records takes nothing away from adopted people. In fact, I believe the opposite to be true: accessing their records has the potential to help these women come to terms with what happened to them in the past.

Nevertheless, during Oireachtas debates on the legislation, the minister argued that adopted people have been waiting many decades for information and tracing rights, hence the urgency in passing the Bill.

I don’t buy this argument. A simple amendment would have given mothers the right to obtain records relating to their own experiences and information about the fate of their daughter or son. It really isn’t complex but nonetheless, the State clings steadfastly to its default position: namely, it needs to protect mothers from contact by the daughters and sons they lost to adoption.

It has now given adopted people access to information and records while ignoring the equally important needs of their mothers. The State’s faux concern for ‘vulnerable’ mothers and their privacy betrays a rudimentary paternalism.

The Irish State knows all too well that, for mothers, records are an important element of redress – and these files often contain evidence of human rights violations committed by the State and its agents, including forced adoption.

‘The rule of silence’

In the coming weeks and months, personal interest stories will be published about affected people engaging with the new system. In some of these articles, you may read about the experiences of adopted people whose mothers have refused contact with them.

Non-adopted people can empathise, but you have to be adopted to understand how devastating that refusal is — it cuts to the bone. Fortunately, I am not in this position, but there are some adopted people for whom this is their reality.

The minister’s refusal to heed our concerns is inexcusable. The mandatory information session marks all adopted people as different, but for those whose mothers don’t want contact, this requirement is an unnecessary and grievous insult.

If we are to truly address our nation’s legacy of closed, secret adoption it is crucial that we try to understand the reasons why some women feel unable to say yes to contact with their adult children.

Behind every story of a mother who refuses contact is a woman who managed to survive an unimaginable loss. Under Ireland’s closed, secret adoption system, everyone involved was expected to move on with their lives and, to varying degrees, strictly observe a rule of silence.

For mothers, this meant walking away and pretending as if they never had a child. When a mother refuses contact, it is utterly devastating for the adopted person, but I do not believe this woman is being deliberately cruel to her adult daughter or son. Rather, I think that it must have taken a great deal of strength and effort to learn how to silently cope with the loss of a child.

And for some women, the prospect of having to dismantle those defences can lead them to say ‘no’. I know this is cold comfort for the adopted person on the receiving end of that ‘no’, but experience tells us that with time, space and – crucially – peer support from other mothers who have lost children to adoption, many women change their minds.

For me, the Birth (Information and Tracing) Act cannot be characterised as ‘progress’. Rather, much of the State’s recent conduct in this area must be recognised as a war of attrition, designed to dilute the energies of the people most affected by these issues and to compromise our ability to effectively engage with the State’s responses. So, the struggle isn’t over – we just have different battles ahead.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that 3 October 2022 was an important day for so many affected people and I would like to take this opportunity to wish all those engaging with the new system the very best of luck.

All of us in the Adoption Rights Alliance, the Clann Project and Justice for Magdalenes Research are rooting for you. You can find information and resources (including peer support and interim guides) at:

Claire McGettrick is an Irish Research Council postgraduate scholar at the School of Sociology at University College Dublin. She is co-founder of Adoption Rights Alliance and Justice for Magdalenes Research and co-director of the multi-award-winning Clann Project.

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Claire McGettrick
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