Mothers of adopted babies face a new trauma if the cloak of invisibility is suddenly torn away
Irish people have a knack for pretending. But let us have no charade it was only in the remote past that Ireland was a cold house for pregnant girls without a ring on their fingers.
As recently as the 1980s, this was no country for unmarried mothers. Remember the Ann Lovett case? Even now, it is impossible to read her story without wincing – both for the tragic schoolgirl, and for the society from which she sprang.
In 1984, a terrified 15-year-old named Ann Lovett gave birth alone, outdoors, by a grotto in honour of the Virgin Mary. She made her way from her school in Granard, Co Longford, to the grotto, and on a wet winter's day there had a baby son, who died.
Ann died on the same day, from haemorrhage and exposure, and the father's name was never revealed.
It shocked the nation, not least because some people in her community must have known about her condition. But it also led to a cascade of similar stories: the sense of fear, shame and isolation experienced by Ann was the lot of other young women who stepped outside sexual controls set in stone.
Now, consider the girls who were just a little luckier than Ann, and managed to give birth in mother and baby homes. It was commonplace for them to be pressurised into agreeing to adoption. No doubt, they were told it was for the best.
But adoption was on the basis of anonymity for the mother. Suddenly, decades later, the invisibility they were promised risks being hollowed out. There was discussion in the Dail yesterday about a referendum to change the Constitution, and give an adopted child the right to know the identity of their birth mother.
Imagine the distress that possibility must be causing to women treated shabbily by the State already. Consider their dread, now, at the prospect of their anonymity being rescinded. Some may be elderly, and in poor health. The threat that an adult child could turn up, unannounced, on their doorstep is likely to be an added burden.
Naturally, the adopted child does not intend to cause anxiety. Probably, he or she simply wants to meet the birth mother before it is too late – an understandable urge, after all. But the reality is that if a woman has not made herself available to meet a child by now, she has her reasons. And they ought to be respected.
Some women spent a lifetime longing to be reunited with the baby they lost. But others reconciled themselves to it, after a fashion, and built a new life for themselves. Not all told their husband or children about that first baby – it was a secret they guarded; a secret which could undermine the edifice of their lives, or so they may worry.
For a mother and child to meet again is a desirable outcome in instances where she wants to be in touch with the baby she was emotionally blackmailed into surrendering. But what of mothers who do not choose to come face-to-face with this echo from their past? Are they to have the veil of anonymity yanked away from them whether they consent or not? Such a course seems unfair – these women have suffered already.
Where both birth mother and adopted child agree to be in touch with one another, every effort should be made to facilitate this quickly. But the painful truth for some adopted children is that their birth mothers do not want contact.
Naturally, many adopted children are keen to know about their family background: they have questions about the circumstances of their birth, and adoption. On a practical level, it helps to be au fait with your biological family's medical history.
But does everyone have an automatic right to the back story of their identity? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Rights involve a balancing act. Sometimes, one person's rights collide with another's – that's the spectre here. And there is a potential for emotional harm to be caused.
The birth mother's entitlement to privacy, if she chooses to maintain it, must take precedence over the adopted child's wish to know its birth mother. This means adult children cannot force themselves on the women who gave birth to them, often in difficult circumstances.
If they do track her down, as sometimes happens, and arrive on the doorstep unannounced, they risk being rejected. The best they can hope for is that if they put out feelers through an agency or third party, a consensual meeting might be arranged. But unexpected and unmediated encounters have caused heartache for many – on both sides of the divide.
Some women will want to be found, of course. A woman I worked with years ago used to speak of a daughter given up for adoption, always hoping they could be reunited. She counted the years till her daughter was an adult. Contact was made eventually, but there was no happy-ever-after – no relationship developed. Perhaps expectations were too high.
It would take a heart of stone not to feel for the unmarried mothers of previous decades. For the State to take action which could cause misery, late in life, to those who prefer anonymity seems cruel. We've shown enough cruelty towards unmarried mothers in this country as it is.
I have a close friend who became a young, single mother in 1994. While she doesn't pretend it was easy, she thanks her lucky stars that family support meant she was able to keep her son and raise him, rather than consider adoption. Options existed for her compared with previous decades.
"Remember Ann Lovett," she says. I say we all should all remember Ann Lovett.