Thursday 17 January 2019

Mary Kenny: Adopting attitudes

There's been a revolutionary change in adoption, but it's still complicated

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

When I was about 11 I heard my aunt say that a couple we knew had adopted their daughter. "And aren't they brave!" she exclaimed. "Because you wouldn't know where an adopted child came from."

Perhaps the couple were even more courageous in that they were open about the adoption. As we know now, many adoptions were kept secret, and to this day, it will come as a shock to some that they are not the biological child of those they always regarded as their parents.

It's a sensitive topic, and there can be a conflict between the right of children to know their biological origins, and the pledge made to biological mothers, many years ago, that their privacy would be respected and their anonymity preserved. Many stories will emerge from new disclosures, and it will require tact, compassion and emotional intelligence among those dealing with it officially.

Younger people are shocked that adoptions could be hidden, and birth certificates illegally registered. But present outcomes are always shaped by past attitudes.

Adoption advocates were not all evil nuns making a quick buck by selling off babies to America: the Adoption Society (Ireland) of the 1950s was a secular organisation, regarded at the time as enlightened and progressive. Their members lobbied for the name of the natural mother to be removed from birth certificates with the well-meaning intention of giving a child "a fresh start".

Many adoption advocates thought it would be kinder to the child to have the "stigma" (and it was, then) of "illegitimacy" to be removed. The Catholic church was doubtful, initially: the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, the Irish Bishops' official publication, had been running articles about the rights of the natural mother throughout the 1940s. John Charles McQuaid, the draconian Archbishop of Dublin, supported the natural mother's rights in 1949: his critics said this arose from a punitive attitude to a woman who "must bear her sin". But he had also lost his own mother at birth and that may have been a psychological factor.

In any case, adoption was originally a liberal cause (the Irish Times, then considered a Protestant newspaper, actively supported it). When it came to be debated in Dáil Éireann from 1948 to 1952, it was rural Ireland that tended to express doubts. Concerns were expressed that land would be passed to adoptive children who were not of the "bloodline". Registering an adoptive child as part of the family was compared to interfering with the agricultural bloodstock record.

Significantly, in Britain, which had legislated for adoption in 1926, the opponents of adoption remained the aristocracy, with their roots in land and estates. An adopted child (or a child born out of wedlock) still cannot succeed to a hereditary title - the "bloodline" has to be maintained.

And it was this concern with the "bloodline" that also prompted the bias against adoption - that the family wouldn't know "who the child was". This wasn't confined to Ireland: in the 1980s in London I heard an educated Englishman express misgivings about his son marrying a woman who was adopted, using the same phrases about not knowing who "her people" really were.

Today, things have changed utterly, and it's the adopted individuals themselves who seek the truth about their "bloodline". There has been a revolution in social thinking, and a revolution too, in adoption practice. And because single mothers keep their babies, and birth control (and abortion) provides more choice, there are now few babies adopted, except from abroad, and even that's not easy.

Modern adoption practice seems much better, but it's not problem-free. The Bake Off cook, Prue Leith, a campaigner for supporting adoption (her daughter, Li-Da, was adopted from Cambodia) says that there are heartbreaking issues around adoption, often caused by increasing rules and regulations. There are nearly 73,000 children in institutional or social care in the UK, and it's rising yearly. Many could be adopted, but the checks and balances around the procedure can take years, while the kids languish without a family.

Universally, Leith wrote recently in The Spectator, there are tens of thousands of children orphaned or abandoned who will never find adoptive homes because of the bureaucracy, and the cost, to would-be adopters.

Prue compares the case of her husband, John, born to a "young, single and desperate" mother in 1946: the doctor who delivered the baby also knew a married but childless woman yearning for a child. So he just "solved" the problem for both women by handing John over to the married woman. No checks or counselling, and shocking to modern eyes, though for John, it worked out.

Their daughter Li-Da now wants to adopt, and the hoops she has to go through make it seem almost impossible.

We know that when adoption did become legal in Ireland, the churches took over and Catholic agencies organised for babies to be sent to the United States - "sold" is sometimes the word used. The film actress Jane Russell acquired her family that way. America never had the same prejudice against adoption, and has remained, according to Prue Leith, the most facilitating about adopting practices. But "it's a complicated subject with no easy answers." Indeed so.


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