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Opinion Our rights as adopted people will not be enshrined in law, they'll be in grave danger

Adoption rights campaigner Claire McGettrick responds to the new Birth Information and Tracing Bill.

I WAS BORN in 1973 and adopted at six weeks old through St Patrick’s Guild Adoption Society. I reunited with my mother when I was 20.

Although I have known my original identity since then, I have nonetheless spent my entire adult life in a battle of wills, at first with St Patrick’s Guild and more recently with Tusla, to obtain my adoption file. Like every other adopted person in Ireland, I am discriminated against simply because I am adopted.

I have spent the past 20 years campaigning on this issue with Adoption Rights Alliance, the Clann Project and our predecessor organisations.

Roderic O’Gorman is the ninth Minister for Children we’ve engaged with; the Birth (Information and Tracing) Bill 2022 is our fourth information bill. I think it’s beyond time for our rights to be recognised in law.

Latest legislation

However, within minutes of reading the Minister’s latest draft Bill, published on 12 January, I knew we had another fight on our hands: under this draft Bill, some adopted people will still have to attend an offensive Information Session before they can get their birth certificates, and the Bill once again wants to take away adopted people’s rights to their personal data—rights only recently affirmed through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

And there are myriad other concerns, including the absence of information rights for mothers (save for those women whose children died in certain institutions), and there is no mechanism to access the administrative files of institutions, agencies and individuals involved in forced family separation.

If this Bill becomes law, an adopted person who applies for their birth certificate or ‘birth information’ but whose parent has registered a ‘no contact’ preference on the new Contact Preference Register must attend a mandatory Information Session. One of the express purposes of the Information Session is to inform the adopted person of ‘the importance of… respecting the privacy rights’ of their parent.

It should go without saying but adopted people do not require assistance in understanding the concept of privacy.

Rights of access

Birth certificates have been public documents for over 150 years. Any person can visit the Research Room of the General Register Office (GRO) and view the indexes to the Registers of Births. Members of the public using the GRO’s research services—including adopted people—do not have to attend compulsory meetings to have the importance of respecting people’s privacy explained to them.

It is also important to note that adopted people can already access their birth certificates. They have been doing so since the 1990s by navigating public civil registration records in the GRO. The sun has not fallen out of the sky as a result. 

Some adopted people upon obtaining their information discreetly seek out family members, others do not. There is no evidence to suggest that adopted people do anything other than respect family members’ wishes when they decline contact requests. The fact that we are adopted does not cancel out our capacity for care and empathy.

The Minister, like his predecessors, is operating under the mistaken assumption that adopted people and their mothers are on opposing sides. He has repeatedly insisted that the proposed Information Session must remain in the legislation or run the risk of legal challenges as to the Bill’s constitutionality. Yet the Minister does not seem at all worried about constitutional challenges from adopted people whose rights are jeopardised in the current Bill.

‘Mothers in fear’

Some media commentators continue to perpetuate the myth that many mothers are petrified of their daughter or son making contact with them. Some claimed this was going to cause difficulty for many women. These assertions are utterly contradicted by facts in the public domain.

For example, data released by the Adoption Authority to the Clann Project indicates that over the past 17 years, just 5% of mothers (128 women) who registered on the National Adoption Contact Preference Register stated that they wish to have no contact with their daughter or son.

The Minister has portrayed the Bill as ‘landmark legislation’ that will vindicate people’s ‘fundamental rights to information’. But instead of putting in place a mechanism whereby adopted people’s GDPR rights to their personal data can be clearly met, the Bill eviscerates those rights by re-defining information and limiting access under certain categories, such as ‘early life’, ‘medical’, and ‘care’ information.

This means in effect that adopted people will have no automatic right to all personal data in their files. Civil servants will determine access to records under these categories of data as they see fit. The categories of information are open to a range of different interpretations; it is certain that much personal data will be held back. Our rights are not being enshrined in law, rather, they are in grave danger under this Bill.

There is a good reason why adopted people say we want ‘the file, the whole file and nothing but the file’. The adoption file represents a crucial component of an adopted person’s personal history. Without us, there is no file at all.

Our records are our story

When combined, the records form a narrative of how we came to inhabit our current identities; for example, how and why we were separated from our mothers, how we came to be placed with our adoptive families. In some cases, the files will also expose illegal activity.

Thus, our adoption files are inextricably linked to our identities. Apart from records that are solely our mothers’ data (for example, our mothers’ medical records), our files are our personal data as defined under the GDPR: they are part of our physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural and social identity.

Minister O’Gorman is asking adopted people to accept a law that singles us out as different, less than equal to non-adopted people and once again undermines our information rights.

This Bill has been decades in the making and the pressure to support it is enormous. But adopted people deserve better. Mothers and relatives deserve better too. Adopted people’s identities were obliterated to facilitate closed secret adoptions. As infants, none of us had any choice in the matter.

The unconditional restoration of our information rights is the very least the State can do. It is impossible to characterise Minister O’Gorman’s Bill as a justice measure. This Bill does not have the support of the people it is supposed to serve because it undermines their rights.

Thankfully it’s not too late to rectify the situation. Minister O’Gorman has it within his power to amend this Bill to ensure that it is truly a ground-breaking piece of legislation. But that will not happen if the Minister continues not to listen to those most affected.

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.


Claire McGettrick
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