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O'Gorman says term 'birth mother' is 'reductive and hurtful' ahead of legislation debate

The minister is set to discuss the Birth Information and Tracing Bill at a meeting of the Oireachtas Children’s Committee this afternoon.

Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O'Gorman (file photo)
Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O'Gorman (file photo)
Image: Eamon Farrell/RollingNews.ie

CHILDREN’S MINISTER RODERIC O’Gorman has said the term “birth mother” is “reductive and hurtful”, adding that an alternative term should be used.

O’Gorman is set to discuss the Birth Information and Tracing Bill at a meeting of the Oireachtas Children’s Committee this afternoon.

The long-awaited legislation will enshrine in law a right for adopted people to access their birth certificates, and birth and early life information.

The Bill will undergo pre-legislative scrutiny before an Oireachtas vote.

In his speech at the committee meeting, O’Gorman is expected to address “the deeply sensitive issue of the term ‘birth mother’ which is used in the Heads of Bill”.

O’Gorman will tell committee members that, having met with a group of mothers to discuss the issue, he is “clear that a more suitable term is needed”.

“My Department is currently engaging with the draftsperson of the Bill on this matter. The mothers I have met feel the term ‘birth mother’ is reductive and hurtful.

“Some find the term ‘natural mother’ more appropriate, others prefer the term ‘first mother’.”

In his opening speech, O’Gorman will also reference the fact a survey of adopted people, commissioned by the advocacy group Aitheantas, indicated a preference amongst adopted people for the term ‘birth mother’.

“The differing viewpoints are indicative of the challenge to find a term that is acceptable and works legislatively, albeit that I want to emphasise that I am deeply committed to doing so and that I acknowledge that the term ‘birth mother’ needs to be amended,” O’Gorman will say.

The minister will state that his department is trying to be respectful of the wishes of all stakeholders.

His opening statement notes: “The legislation recognises that mothers are not a homogenous group; the Committee will know that most mothers are happy for the information to be released and in such cases, there is no requirement for an information session.

“However, there are some mothers who experienced a crisis pregnancy and had little or no choices or support. They may have lived with this all their lives and may not have told anyone; there is a very human dimension to this that goes to the very core of this debate about balancing of rights.

“That particular group of mothers has lived with pain, hurt and fear. My Department has received anonymous calls from women in that position. I received a handwritten anonymous letter from such a woman recently. These are woman who will not come before any Oireachtas Committee.

“As legislators we cannot ignore their rights. Equally, we must act urgently to vindicate the rights of adopted persons by providing a clear and straightforward basis for the release of birth certificates and birth information. This proposed legislation does that.”

Information session

O’Gorman will also comment on the fact that previous attempts to legislate on the issue “were severely criticised for processes that were more adversarial – that were viewed as pitting a mother and an adopted person against each other and not offering a guarantee of released information in every case”.

The minister will this afternoon stress that the proposed legislation will attempt a different approach.

Defending a proposed information session that adopted people will have to attend in cases where their mother has noted a no-contact preference, O’Gorman said it will be “non-adversarial” and recognise “the challenges, complexities and sensitivities for those impacted by adoption”.

Many adopted people have said there is no need for such an information session, claiming that it infantalises them.

O’Gorman will today state that he has “listened carefully to concerns raised” and is “currently considering some amendments to the information session to better emphasise the identity rights of the relevant person, to enable the session to be held virtually, without the requirement for a social worker, and to ensure that it will be as sensitive and user-friendly as possible”.

The Aitheantas report, which was published in July, highlighted the negative experience many adopted people go through when they seek out personal information.

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When asked about their experience of seeking information about their adoption, participants in the survey outlined a number of obstacles when dealing with the relevant agencies.

Common experiences included frustration at the way in which State agencies interacted with adoptees, with participants referring to the experience as “awful”, “frustrating” and “very upsetting”.

Speaking at the time, Maree Ryan O’Brien, founder of Aitheantas and co-author of the report, said: “It is very disappointing to see that most respondents spoke of negative experiences with State and private agencies currently tasked with supporting adoptees in their attempts to retrieve personal information.

“Adoptees do not enter into the process of tracing their personal information lightly. The decision often follows months, if not years, of careful thought and consideration. However, many adoptees and their families recounted experiences of ‘coming up against a wall’ when trying to access information via State and private agencies.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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