Patricia Casey: 'We must learn the lessons of adoptions as fertility treatments bring new identity crisis'
Identity is an aspect of our culture that has gained prominence in the social sciences in recent years. It is defined as who you are, what has made you the person you are and how you see yourself in relation in others.
The question of personal identity has taken on increasing salience as reproductive technologies have become more sophisticated and are increasingly used to deal with decreasing fertility.
But the age-old response to infertility, adoption, is the area in which this issue is most prominent and as yet unresolved in many jurisdictions.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
The question of adoption and identity is live again in Ireland. A bill before the Oireachtas brought by Katherine Zappone, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, is attempting to modernise the laws on contact tracing between adopted children and birth parents.
The matter was explored in a recent TG4 documentary called 'Uchtu', presented by Evanne Ní Chuilinn and based on her own efforts at tracing her roots.
I participated in the programme as I am an adoptive mother.
We were very fortunate to have met our boys' birth mothers before we adopted them. We remained in contact until they met face to face around the age of 15, and their relationships blossomed after that.
Not all adopted children are so lucky as to have such a complete awareness of who they are, what elements of their personality emanated from their biological parents and which from my husband and me.
Secrecy around adoption was not unique to Ireland but was part of the culture of the period after World War II and before the sexual revolution.
Children were taken from birth mothers and adopted out, sometimes in dubious circumstances, that may have seen money exchanged.
This clean break approach was regarded as best policy, so as to facilitate the birth mother in moving on with her life and the child and its new family in adapting and growing in love for each other.
In Ireland now there are many adoptees in their 50s and upwards who feel rootless and empty. This is the group whose needs are particularly challenging in relation to Ms Zappone's Bill.
According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, every child has the right to an identity. This means basic information such as where and when you were born, who your mother and (if possible) your father was, your ethnic origin and so forth.
Those in a state of identity limbo are critical of the Government for not making this information available more freely.
The Government position is to try to balance the right to information with the right to privacy presumed or even agreed with the birth mother.
This is a legislative and constitutional dilemma. Privacy is protected in the Irish Constitution. Meanwhile, Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights says that "Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence".
Beyond legal considerations, there is also a moral and ethical issue. Which approach will cause the greater or lesser harm? Will an adoptee be more harmed by not knowing details of their biological parents than a parent whose details are provided to those children seeking them?
Will an adoptee, given this information and making unwanted contact, be more harmed if their approach is rejected than by not knowing who their birth mother is? Will a birth mother be damaged?
In this instance, I come down on the side of the birth parent. She probably had an understanding that her identity would be concealed. Should the State retrospectively infringe that position it would be guilty of massive over-reach into the personal domain.
She might have to face a stranger at the door attempting to establish contact. The violation of her privacy regarding her past would be very grave. It might also impact on her family relationships.
Let's not lose sight either of the impact of a rebuffal on the adoptee. I have experience of such an outcome professionally.
The Government is continuing to work on finalising what seems like an impossible law, one that will respect the rights of all in this triangulation of differing sets of needs, privacy and emotions.
However, there is a sting in the tail, new scenarios coming on stream before those that have existed for the last 60 or 70 years have even been dealt with. They include children conceived by egg and sperm donation, or born to surrogates.
They are likely to ask the same questions as those who came from orphanages and foster homes.
We need to learn from the lessons anonymous adoption has taught us and bring these to bear on new technologies. Otherwise, history will repeat itself.
Patricia Casey is consultant psychiatrist at the Mater Hospital Dublin and Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at UCD.