Adoption (Identity and Information) Bill 2014: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Earlier this year I spoke about what it was like growing up as an adopted child and not knowing anything about my natural mother until I was 29 years of age. Since then, I have been overwhelmed with e-mails and letters from other adoptees sharing their experiences. Some of their personal circumstances are very different to mine. However, their pain, sadness and anxiety are all too familiar: the pain of not knowing who you really are or where you came from; the sadness that descends on you each birthday and Mother's Day when you wonder where your mother is and if she's okay; and the anxiety that grips you every time a doctor asks if there is a serious genetic medical condition in your family and you have to tell him that you do not know.

Having finally met my natural mother a few years ago, I now have answers to these questions. I am also fortunate to have had the chance to get to know her, my half siblings and the rest of my second family. However, I am one of a tiny minority of adoptees who have been able to find their mothers through the national adoption contact preference register. Without a right to their birth certificates, thousands of Irish adoptees will never get even the most basic information about themselves that everyone else takes for granted.

Adopted people in England have had a legal right to their birth certificates, listing their original names and those of their parents, since 1976. Forty years later, Irish adoptees still do not have this right. Successive Irish Governments have claimed that the reason for denying us this information is to protect the privacy of our mothers. The impression given is that women chose to give up their babies years ago, have not looked back since and do not want to be reminded of the past. This could not be further from the truth. The reality is that for decades, unmarried mothers were pressurised into putting their children up for adoption, with adoption rates among them reaching 97% at one stage. Women had no choice. As the movie "Philomena" powerfully shows, many of these women were devastated at losing their children and have spent years trying to trace them, only to be lied to by religious orders and adoption agencies and refused information by the State.

As a teenager in Limerick, Philomena Lee was banished to Sean Ross Abbey for the so-called sin of having a baby out of wedlock. Against her wishes, she was forced to sign papers to place her son Anthony for adoption and told by the nuns that she would burn in the fires of hell if she ever uttered a word to anyone about her shameful secret. After Anthony was taken from her, Philomena left the convent and moved to England. However, she never stopped thinking about her son and returned to Sean Ross Abbey a year later to beg the nuns to tell her where he had gone. They refused and so started a 50-year search for her lost son. The next time Philomena came close to Anthony was when she stood over his gravestone at Sean Ross Abbey decades later. When she later met her son's partner, she was told that Anthony too had gone back to the nuns seeking information about his mother. To Philomena's heartbreak she learned that he had been told his mother abandoned him and never looked back. Her son had died believing she had rejected him even though that could not have been further from the truth.

In calling on Members to support this Bill last weekend, Philomena said that while it is too late for herself and Anthony, we must legislate now to help other mothers who were forced to separate from their children in circumstances similar to hers. In recent weeks, I have been contacted by many other women like Philomena.

They were devastated to lose their children in the first place and are heartbroken that they still cannot make contact with them now. They just want to know that their son or daughter is okay. They want to know how life has turned out for them, and they want to be able to tell their child that they never stopped thinking about them. Older women in particular are worried that if legislation is not brought in soon it will be too late.

I know that Members have been contacted by many people in recent weeks sharing their own stories. Many of them are equally sad. We got an e-mail from a gentleman the other day who said he finally found his mother in September only to hear that she passed away in August and that she had a dreadful life. The pain of being separated from her child had caused her great hardship and upset. He spent years trying to trace her through the Health Service Executive only to realise that he missed her by a month. That heartbreak is unimaginable to most of us. It is cruel, wrong and it is time we changed it.

Ireland's history of secretive and often forced adoptions is not just a shameful aspect of our past. It continues to cause great pain to adopted people and their parents to this day. It is time for the Government to do the right thing by giving all adoptees a right to their birth certificates and assisting adopted people, and mothers and fathers, who wish to reunite. This Bill is designed to do just that. If enacted, all adoptees will have a right to their birth certificates, listing their original names and their parents' names; natural parents may request information about their adopted sons or daughters; and both adoptees and parents can opt to have their contact details released to each other if they are both happy to do so.

Many adoptees and natural parents would love to be reunited with each other and will be delighted that a process is finally in place after all these years to enable them do so. I accept that others may prefer not to do so. The system provided for in the Bill will enable each person to proceed in a way that suits their own individual needs and sensitivities. Where both parties wish to exchange contact details, they will be facilitated in doing so but where someone would prefer not to have their details released to the other person, they can simply tell the Adoption Authority to withhold them. However, a parent who does not wish to meet may opt to provide medical information to their son or daughter which could be of huge benefit to the adoptee.

In deciding whether to accept or decline a request for contact details, an adoptee or a parent will have at least four months to make up their mind. They will also have the option to meet with a counsellor or social worker to talk the whole thing through before coming to a decision. The Bill has been carefully designed to respect the desires and rights of both parties.

Some commentators have asked what is to stop adoptees tracking down their birth parents against their wishes once they have their birth certificate. As an adopted person and an adult, I would never have wished to force myself into a relationship with somebody else who did not want to have that relationship. We are all sensitive people. Before I met my mother I thought more about her needs than my own. I was aware of the fact that I could have been conceived in difficult circumstances and that meeting me might bring back difficult memories for her, and I was sensitive to that. I know from talking to other adoptees that is their perspective also.

As an adopted person sometimes I resent the idea put out in public debate that we are irrational and want to hurt people. All we want to know is who we are and where we came from. That is perfectly natural and it is all any of us want in this world. It is so wrong that out of fear, scare-mongering and cruelty we have denied people that information for so long. It comes from a misguided attitude towards people which, unfortunately, has led to stigma in other areas of our society where the State believes it has a responsibility to protect people from themselves and be patronising in its attitude to different groups. It is cruel and it is wrong.

Putting that aside, there is also a greater risk of unwanted contact under the current arrangements. Not having an automatic right to one's birth certificate does not necessarily mean it is impossible for adoptees to find their parents. As the Minister knows well, it makes it more difficult. The records are open. If somebody wants to do a painful, exhausting search of all the children born on their particular birth date, cross off all the boys and go through the girls, narrow it down until eventually they come down to three or four babies they can do that. People sometimes trace it down to a locality and they end up in terrible situations walking around asking people if they know a particular lady who lived in the area decades ago. Those are the lengths to which people have to go, which is not a good process for anybody and because there is no intermediary to reach out to the mother on their behalf, their only way to make contact is to write a letter directly, pick up the telephone or send a message on Facebook. Nobody wants to be put in that position.

This Bill would put in place that intermediary service and enable adoptees to reach out to their natural parents through the Adoption Authority rather than having to do so directly. It also includes provisions relating to supports from a counsellor or a social worker to ensure that both people are supported and that they have someone who can help them through the process, but it puts in place a system that is much more supportive and sensitive for all concerned. It is far better and there is much less of a risk of people having unwanted contact than under the current arrangements. I want to knock that on the head because that notion is often put out by people who do not understand the issue.

The Bill strikes a careful balance. I welcome to the Visitors Gallery Dr. Fergus Ryan, who drafted the legislation for us. Dr. Ryan is a law lecturer at Maynooth University with a particular expertise in family law, constitutional law and human rights. He did a huge amount of work on the Bill over many months, researching all the relevant constitutional cases and ensuring it is drafted in a way that vindicates the adoptee's right to his or her identity while also respecting the mother's right to privacy, achieving a balancing of rights as required by the Supreme Court in the I. O'T v. B case.

It has taken a good deal of work to develop legislation that achieves the appropriate balance but I am confident that this Bill does that. However, it is only on Second Stage in the Seanad today. After we agree it today, as I understand we will, and I thank the Minister for that and Members on all sides of the House who helped to bring that about, it will go through another two Stages in this House before going through three Stages in the Dáil. I will be happy to consider, as will Senators van Turnhout and Healy Eames also, suggestions for amendments and changes from any Member of this House. We want to get this right and have the best possible legislation, and we are more than willing to amend it on Committee Stage if necessary.

There is no doubt that this is a sensitive and legally complicated area but it is not beyond our capabilities as an Oireachtas to get it right. As the Supreme Court has pointed out on many occasions, it is our job to do so. Ignoring this issue, as successive Governments have done, does a huge disservice to the thousands of adoptees who have been denied their identities as a result. It has also left women like Philomena to suffer great pain and loss unnecessarily. It is long past time we stopped abdicating our responsibility as legislators and worked together to address this issue in a fair and sensitive way.

I thank Senators van Turnhout and Healy Eames for seconding the Bill. I am also grateful for the support it has received from Senators and Deputies of all parties and none. In the past week various people have been ringing my office and stopping me in the corridor, which I really appreciate. By putting aside party differences and working together, we can make a real difference to people's lives and enacting this Bill would be a major step forward for the 50,000 Irish adoptees and their families. I would like to keep working with all Members after today to help get it passed into law as soon as possible, and I hope they will support me in that.

The Minister is very welcome and I thank him for his co-operation in helping us bring this Bill to the House. I would also like to extend a welcome to our visitors in the Visitors Gallery from Adoption Rights Alliance Ireland and Dr. Fergus Ryan.

I thank Senator Averil Power for her tremendous work initiating the Bill and Senator Healy Eames for joining with us in bringing it forward today. A special thanks also to Dr. Fergus Ryan who drafted the Bill. I thank also the many colleagues who shared their personal stories with me over the past two weeks and the reason they support this Bill, which indicates that it reaches into every household in Ireland.

I feel very strongly about the Bill and it is an honour for me to second it in the House today. My intervention will focus on a critical component, which is all too readily brushed aside or diminished, that is, the right to identity. In 1976, Alex Haley, author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family, articulated what so many adoptive people in Ireland have described to me over the years when he stated: "In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage - to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning ... and the most disquieting loneliness". The right of people to know who they are is fundamental, necessary and basic.

Its absence can be a source of considerable pain and anguish. Its absence, where the necessary information exists but is being withheld, can leave people with a feeling of deep injury and injustice. By focusing on the right to identity I do not wish in any way to undermine or diminish the identity that an adopted person has developed in his or her life with his or her adoptive parents and families. There are many adopted people who have no desire whatsoever to access their birth information. However, there are many for whom the information is a burning need.

I have spoken in this House on several occasions about forced and illegal adoptions. All too often we have cloaked adoption in secrecy and as a society we have been complicit in suppressing women, their children and their respective rights. This is typified by a startling figure produced by Clare McGettrick of the Adoption Rights Alliance which shows that in 1967, a staggering 97% of all children born outside marriage were adopted. We cannot allow our shameful past, our fear that further shames may be exposed, to justify the perpetuation of a shameful practice against at least 50,000 people in Ireland and yet we do. That is why this Bill is so necessary, so important and is long overdue.

We need to fundamentally reconsider how we approach adoption in Ireland. Our current system of closed adoptions which automatically extinguishes the child's and the adult's right to their identity will ideally be changed to an open system where their biological and adoptive families have access to varying degrees of each other's personal information and have an option of contact from the outset. In the meantime, this Bill will ensure, however retrospectively, the adoptive person's right to identity.

We are on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. How fitting it will be if we can give life to the convention's expressed recognition of a child's right to know and to preserve his or her identity. This has been the law in Scotland since 1930 and in England and Wales since the mid-1970s, with no dire consequences or legal wrangling over rights to privacy.

According to the Supreme Court in I.O'T v. B, an adoptee's right to his or her identity is not absolute and is subject in particular to the right to privacy of the natural parent, about which we have heard much in the past 24 hours. However, it also pointed out that the right to privacy does not automatically trump the right to identity. The Supreme Court decided that the two rights must be balanced against each other. It is clear from the Supreme Court decisions in Tuohy v. Courtney, that the precise balance to be struck is a matter for the Oireachtas to determine. This Bill achieves that balance in a way that is sensitive to the needs of all parties.

We must let in the light and we must start now in a new era of openness and understanding. We should not stand in judgment and I believe that this Bill strikes the balance mooted by the Supreme Court and longed for by so many adoptive people, their families and friends. Let us do this now.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank the Senators who have introduced this Bill, in particular, Senators Power, van Turnhout and Healy Eames. As someone who has been involved in drafting Private Members' Bills I know it is not an easy task and it takes a lot of work, dedication and commitment. I thank everyone involved.

This Bill is comprehensive and carefully drafted and it progresses the debate on the subject and will help to bring about change. As Senator Power outlined, this change is long overdue compared to the changes in UK legislation which occurred over 40 years ago. It is time to move on and to stop hiding behind closed doors on this matter.

I refer to the number of people who are affected directly or indirectly by the fact that they are unable to gain access to information. I recently had a case relating to foster care where two people, both of whom I had known for 35 and 40 years, respectively, had been put into foster care. They were aged 71 and 79 years, respectively, when they met for the first time since they were children. One of the individuals was very involved in Fianna Fáil and the other was very involved in Fine Gael.

One of them turned out right.

If they had been in the same party they might have met earlier. When they are together one can see that they are sisters. They were put into foster care and had not been adopted yet it took them until they were in their 70s to find each another. This brings home the reason change is needed in this area.

I refer to the recent Supreme Court judgment in the case of I.O'T v. B which states:

That in view of the caution to be exercised with regard to the duty of ascertaining and declaring what were the personal rights of the citizen, other than those specified in the Constitution, it was incumbent on a court declaring such a right to do so in clear and explicit terms. It was only a right that had been so declared that could be regarded as a right guaranteed by the Constitution. It was not permissible for any court to imply from the existence of a right guaranteed by the Constitution, whether from the specified terms thereof or as a result of a declaration by the superior courts, the existence of any other right in the absence of a declaration by the superior courts of the existence of that other right.

We have allowed the courts to deal with this issue for far too long. It is time to move on and to bring in the necessary legislation to set up a proper structure and procedure for dealing with providing the information to people who have been adopted but also providing the information to the natural parents. There are two sides in this matter and it is important that both are catered for.

The Government is considering bringing forward legislation but this Bill could be a means of progressing the debate. If change is not introduced in the lifetime of this Government, progress will be delayed for two or three years. The Bill proposes procedures for the adoptee's right to apply for a birth certificate to the General Registration Office, that the Adoption Authority of Ireland will be notified and it must make reasonable efforts to contact the natural mother and father, where known, and to advise them of the request. The natural parents will be advised that their child's records will be released and a reasonable period of time is allowed. It is important that a reasonable period of time is allowed and this legislation provides that balance in allowing time for both sides to deal with the issues and that everything is above board. This legislation will provide a way forward. I agree it needs to be fine-tuned and that we will probably need to bring forward amendments. We can no longer allow the situation to remain as it is. This Bill is one of many steps that will be required to arrive at properly structured legislation. The General Registration Office will be crucial in setting up the structures and it will need to be adequately resourced in order to deal with the issues arising.

I welcome the Bill and it has my full support and I hope it will be a means of bringing this matter to a conclusion during the lifetime of this Government.

There is very little one can say after the tremendous speeches Members have heard from everybody here. I endorse everything said by Senator Colm Burke and it is great that he is welcoming this Bill on behalf of the Government side. This non-partisan approach to policy has so much to commend it. I wish to praise Senators Power, van Turnhout and Healy Eames for acting on behalf of the 50,000 adoptees and their families on the right to identity. I welcome the visitors in the Gallery from the Adoption Rights Alliance and, in particular, Dr. Fergus Ryan, who I knew as a most kindly man when he was in Trinity College for looking after his elderly neighbours in the Rubrics. This is a man who comes with strong credentials to this topic, which he has proven through drafting this legislation. While many speakers wish to make a contribution, other than wholehearted support from these benches I do not wish to delay the House. I am delighted the Minister is present and note that the last time Members discussed children's rights with him, it was the much smaller right of children not to be smoked at by adults in the same car. While this issue is much more serious, the Minister proved his credentials then in defending children in that small way and I am sure that on this much larger issue, Members will hear much of the same positive approach he took then. I thank the Acting Chairman, welcome the Minister and reiterate my praise of all the Senators who have spoken. This is a good day for this House and for the adopted people who have asked Members to do this. I thank everyone who sent e-mails to Members, to each of which I try to reply individually. I note the happiness already generated by Members' support in those people who sent the e-mails to them. They are really pleased and it is a good day for this House that we have sided with them. Gabhaim buíochas leo go léir.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank Senators Power, van Turnhout and Healy Eames for drafting this legislation, as well as the distinguished guests in the Visitors Gallery who also were involved in this regard. I support this Bill and I am absolutely delighted that Senator Power has been involved because Members are listening to someone who knows what she is talking about. She has been through this, understands it and has lived it. From previous debates, Senator Power will be aware that I also have experience in this regard in that my father was adopted, albeit that he knew his birth name as the people who adopted him allowed him to keep his name. He was an older child when he was adopted and was not adopted as a baby. In those days, when people had children outside of marriage, sometimes one or two, some were kept in the family home and others were placed in an orphanage, as was the case with my father. His sister was kept within the family circle and he was put into an orphanage and adopted by someone else. Consequently, I know about the void of not knowing one's past, albeit it was my grandparents who I did not know. Senator Power has a closer experience than that but when doing our family tree at school or simple things like that, we had no idea and could only go up one side of the tree. My father, who would be in his 80s today had he lived, died as a young man and he never spoke to us about it. He did not seem to want to so do and by the time we reached the age at which we could discuss it with him, unfortunately he was gone. Therefore, while we knew the identity of one of the grandparents, we do not know who our grandfather was. We could be living in a community in which we have an aunt, an uncle or a first cousin but we do not know the relationship. We do not know whether in the future, children will meet one other or get into a relationship and, consequently, I am delighted that this legislation is being brought forward.

This Bill is long overdue and, if implemented, would have the potential to improve greatly the situation both of adoptees and the birth parents of adoptees. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states expressly that every child has the right to preserve and know his or her identity. Surely, part of everyone's identity is knowing basic information about one's birth parents and who is one's natural family. For far too long, the State has stood in the way of adoptees finding out basic information about themselves. Adoptees must fight hard to find out who their biological parents are and their natural family's medical histories. There are several thousand adoptees living in Ireland today, none of whom has an automatic right to their birth certificates, their original names, their parents' names or their family's medical history. In pursuing such a restrictive policy towards those who have been adopted, I believe the State has created obstacles for adoptees finding out about their past and being able to establish their identities. The position facing the birth parents of adoptees is not much better. At present, there is no formal process for biological parents to access information about their adopted children. Major challenges face the natural parents of adoptees when it comes to finding out any information about their adopted sons and daughters. There are issues in respect of finding the adoption certificate and the new names of their natural children.

The Senators have drafted this legislation carefully to give a balance to the birth parents and the adopted child's rights, albeit they will be adults when they seek information. However, I acknowledge the Senators have drafted this measure carefully and have tried to protect everyone's interests. One of the most important measures in this Bill will ensure that all adoption records currently in the hands of adoption agencies, religious orders or mother and baby homes will be delivered to the Adoption Authority of Ireland.

Whenever Members speak in debates, no matter what the subject, they always appear to refer to their nearest neighbours across the water in England, Scotland or wherever and to what they have done. Today, I note that Scotland introduced a similar measure in 1930 and that in 1976, people in England were given the right to access their birth certificates. Consequently, I believe this measure is long overdue here and it is time to introduce it. I hope the Minister will progress this Bill as quickly as possible through both Houses and will bring it to a conclusion, as well perhaps as bringing closure to many adopted people. There are rights for everyone, including the birth parents and, in particular, I presume, the mothers. This is because in many cases the birth certificates will have only the name of the birth mother, as many of them do not have the name of the birth father. These parents have the right not to give out their whereabouts if they see fit not to so do. However, as can be seen from watching a television programme involving such long-lost families, I am pretty sure that in most cases it would pull at one's heartstrings to see people being united. Even if there were reasons the mother or father had to give up the child, it is all forgotten in such meetings and it is a wonderful experience that is great to watch. I thank the Acting Chairman and I am sure Members will have further opportunities to speak on this Bill. I say well done to the Senators concerned.

I welcome the Minister and it is great to have in the Chamber the senior Minister who will be taking responsibility for this Bill. I will start by stating I am absolutely honoured to be a party to this Bill and to have worked with Senators Power and van Turnhout on it. In particular, I compliment Senator Power on her courage today in sharing so much personal information.

That was not easy but it is what strengthens this Bill and has made it a Bill that Members hope and expect the Government will take. As Senator Colm Burke noted, we have carefully constructed this Bill with the support of Dr. Fergus Ryan, who is present. We hope we have all the i's dotted and all the t's crossed. There are three parties in every adoption story, namely, the adopted child, the natural mother and the adoptive family. I stand, as part of the three who created the Bill, as an adoptive mother. We have two adopted children who now are in their early and late teens.

In the last week I was asked why I as an adoptive parent would want to open up this can of worms. This is not about me or my needs, that would be totally selfish of me. This is about the needs of the adopted person. I, personally, have what an adopted person needs, namely, access to my identity and my birth certificate. It is as basic as that. It is only fair that adopted persons are given equal access to their story. In a way, it is about access to their back-story. In our case, we adopted one child when four months old and another, internationally, at ten months old. We have different information about each child. We met our son's birth mother and as a result we know so much more, including medical history. This Bill will provide for access to that type of information. For example, I know it would be not a good idea for my son to become a smoker because based on his family medical history smoking would not be helpful to him. In my daughter's case, because she was adopted internationally, I do not have that type of information.

We all know the importance of medical history. For example, if there is a history of cancer on the mother's side of the family, particularly breast cancer, it is important for a daughter to know that. This Bill will provide access to basic information which will assist the adopted person in feeling whole. It is a basic human need to feel whole. Access to one's identity helps heal a primal wound. It is the start of a journey towards answers to the many questions which adopted persons have. One of the most basic questions to which an adopted person needs an answer is why he or she was given up. There is a theory that all adopted persons are damaged. Providing answers around birth identity starts the journey towards healing the primal wound of abandonment. As an adoptive parent, why would I not want my adopted children to feel whole? Why would I not want them to know their story?

We have been careful in balancing this. I put the breaks on Senators Power and van Turnhout and I ensured that we had a six month period between the request for a birth certificate and provision of that birth certificate because a request could arrive at the time the adopted child is undergoing his or her leaving certificate examinations or prior to a university examination. Also, the request to the natural mother could arrive at a time when another of her children is getting married or a relative has died.

Time is critical. We have worked together to slow down the process but not for too long. I believe six months strikes a good balance. We are carefully balancing the right to identity, which is the primary right in this regard, as it must be, with the right to privacy. However, as stated by Senator van Turnhout the right to privacy does not automatically trump the right to identity. We are carefully balancing the right to identity with the right to privacy of the natural mother. Just because a person has the right to his or her birth certificate does not mean he or she immediately gets it but it will be available when he or she needs it. Equally, just because it might not be a good time in the natural mother's life to meet the adopted person does not mean she will not want to do so some time in the future. We are setting up a new life cycle whereby the needs of all can be met. We all need time. The Bill also provides that during the six-month period the adopted person and natural mother would engage in an advisory session with a counsellor or social worker so that feelings are addressed and the right to privacy is discussed, which is an important safeguard.

The question of why our State should move on this issue has been raised. As the Minister, Deputy Reilly, will have heard during this debate the UK, Scotland and Wales have had similar legislation in place since the mid-1970s and the sky has not fallen in. Adopting a child can make a family whole. I know this. Adoption is a positive outcome for the many people who find themselves in crisis pregnancies. It is important any stigma attached to this area is removed. Let it be a story of joy and hope for all parties.

I thank Senator Walsh for giving way to Senator Healy Eames.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome this debate. While we prepare to celebrate the Centenary of 1916 we should also reflect on the fact that our new State also brought with it some very dark elements. The forced adoption of people within and outside this State before and after the enactment of the 1952 Act is something that should bring a deep sense of shame to all of us as a society.

We recently had cause in this House to discuss the Tuam babies and wider issues. The issue of forced adoption is very much tied up in that era and the attitude of society to those who did not apparently live up to what were very cruel standards. In principle, I support Senators in making the tracing of birth parents or adopted children easier and ensuring rights are afforded to both parties in proportion. I welcome that the Government is proposing that this Bill be supported in the Seanad and referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children for further consideration. Work is already under way on the development of the general scheme and heads of Bill of an adoption (information and tracing) Bill, which will provide for statutory access to adoption records and birth information. The heads of Bill will provide that access to records will be provided to people previously involved in adoptions in so far as is possible and in line with legal advice.

While Dr. Ryan has done an excellent job in the drafting of the aforementioned Bill and seeks to go no further than the decision of the Supreme Court in I. O'T v. B, it must be accepted that there is a significant element of doubt as to the exact meaning of that Supreme Court decision. It is speculated on one side that given the Supreme Court decided that the rights of neither the birth parent nor child were absolute, the release of a birth certificate would not prejudice the constitutional right of the birth parent to privacy. The other interpretation of the Supreme Court decision, the one with which the Adoption Board has since relied, is that the release of a birth certificate would prejudice the constitutional right of privacy of the birth parent. In the circumstances, it is appropriate that this legislation would not be objected to in this House by the Government but rather referred to the committee so that all of these details can be teased out. In my view, given the complexities and personal stories involved, regardless of the way the Bill is ultimately drafted, the matter may again appear before the Supreme Court for decision.

I would like to make a constructive comment on the Bill on which Senators and the Minister might reflect. There could be little objection to medical records being released. There is a far greater understanding today of the hereditary nature of illness. It would seem unconscionable that someone who is adopted would not, for example, during a pregnancy, have information or even the right to it, on their parents' medical history or no knowledge of what regressive gene they might be carrying or passing on. An adopted person would have no idea that he or she might be afflicted by a hereditary illness until such time as he or she becomes ill. Given the judgment in I. O'T v. B it would be very difficult to try to assert that an adopted person does not have the right to know his or her medical history. Surely this could be done without compromising any supposed right to privacy.

It would seem to me that there is a huge variety of situations with which this legislation will have to cope. No two adopted persons or natural parents or their wants or needs will be same. Whatever legislation is enacted needs to be flexible and needs to respect all parties, something we have failed to do in this country to date. If it takes time to get it right, it will be time well spent. I commend the Senators who put forward this Bill and look forward to constructive debate on it as it progresses through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Like others, I commend the three Senators who introduced this Bill. As Senator Barrett mentioned, it is a good example of cross-bench collaboration, placing the Seanad in a different light than the unfortunately dysfunctional Dáil. It is also good that we have Senator Power, who has shown great courage in giving testimony on her circumstances, Senator van Turnhout, who has operated in the field of children, and Senator Healy Eames. I will revert to them in a minute.

I will set out two guiding principles to policy on this matter, namely, the integrity of identity and the best interests of the child. The latter are often expounded, but are more honoured in breach than in adherence. As Senator Power stated, they must be balanced with the interests of adoptive parents. When people adopt children, take them into their homes and give them wonderful lives that they would not have been able to access otherwise, it is a wonderful example of Christianity in practice. Like all parents, they make necessary sacrifices in the interests of their children's well-being. It is important that this balance has been emphasised in the Bill.

Reference has been made to secretive, forced adoptions. They undoubtedly occurred. For various and sometimes simplistic reasons, people often place all of the blame for this on the religious institutions. They are certainly responsible for an element of what happened, but I would not like to take from the good people who worked in those institutions, for example, the Good Shepherd Convent in New Ross. As I have articulated in recent years, some people emerged from institutions with bad experiences, but I also know of many who emerged with nothing but the height of praise and support for the people who looked after them. Some of the nuns were outstanding in the care they gave children. Obviously, not everyone reached the standard to which they should have been aspiring and there were many unchristian practices.

However, let us not take from the fact that those children were often put up for adoption due to parental pressure. As misguided as it was, that pressure may have stemmed from people's misconceptions about what was in the best interests of their own children, namely, the mothers of the babies. Poverty certainly played a part, as did the valley of the squinting windows where, like the Pharisees, people were harsh in judging others as having fallen below what they felt was the standard. Often, they did not reach that standard in their own lives.

I am inclined to mention a meeting that we held last week. I have been working on a Bill on sperm donations for a while. Dr. Joanna Rose visited Leinster House. Throughout her life, she campaigned to try to establish her true identity and, as we are trying to seek in this debate, the records of adoptive children. She took a successful court case in England. Unlike the Senators who have shown courage and initiative in introducing this Bill, the British politicians who were contacted did not raise the matter in the House of Commons. It was left to the courts to determine in her favour. She discovered that her father, who had been a student, was a sperm donor and that she had between 200 and 300 siblings. She subsequently sought to identify her father. I understand that he is a senior executive with Monsanto. When she contacted him, he responded with a solicitor's letter.

It has been stated that our past is shameful, uncaring and unchristian. It did not meet the guiding principles that I set out at the start. However, it is a good line along which we can reflect on our shameful present. Secretive and forced adoptions are being replaced by secretive and forced abortions. Ms Philomena Lee's story is sad. After searching tirelessly, it is unfortunate that she only discovered her son's identity after he had died and been buried. The Philomena Lees of today will not have the opportunity to make contact with their children because of the prevalence of abortion in the Western world. While I support the Bill fully, we should examine my concern with it on Committee Stage, namely, that we should not introduce the unintended consequence of mothers adopting the modern and shameful practice of abortion out of a fear that their identities might be exposed. We should try to avoid that. The Bill is a step in the right direction and I hope that the Minister will see it all the way through to its enactment. People should and will have an entitlement to their identities. This is everyone's human right.

I welcome the Bill and congratulate Senator Power on the way in which she spoke, both today and previously, about her personal experience. That is to be commended. It is a difficult thing to do, so well done to her.

I will not repeat what people have stated, but Senator van Turnhout referred to the burning desire to know one's identity. This is considerable for someone who is adopted. Not many children are adopted these days. As such, we are referring to the past. Women gave up their babies for adoption for several reasons. Often, they did so out of shame and because of the term "fallen woman".

I wish to discuss the people who go through the process of finding their mothers only to find the latter do not want to meet them. This is difficult for any adoptee. In the past week, I was contacted by a lady who told me that, after 30 years, she had found her mother. She had one meeting with mother, who told her that no one knew about her. She has brothers and sisters, but her mother told her that she would not tell them about their sibling. That is shockingly sad. When discussing matters such as this Bill, it is important to remember those adoptees who will never find their mothers. The people with whom I have spoken tend to look for their mothers before their fathers.

I welcome the Bill and look forward to it being before the Oireachtas health committee. I am pleased that the Senators named on the Bill have introduced it. Since this is a sensitive issue, I do not want other matters brought into the discussion as happened today. We are discussing the past but seeking to move into the future. I hope we do so in a meaningful and, most of all, respectful way.

I commend the three Senators who introduced the Bill as well as those who have contributed to the debate so far. I also welcome the Minister.

Sinn Féin welcomes this Bill and we are happy to support it. We agree with the sentiments of the Adoption Rights Alliance that it represents an important first step towards equality for adopted people in Ireland. For far too long, the Irish State and successive Governments and religious institutions have colluded to deny these people their rights as both children and adults.

In the past three years, we have heard in this House and in the Dáil horrendous stories of decades of neglect and abuse and the denial of the most basic of rights to single women and their children while in the so-called care of the various religious orders and the State. The mother and baby homes, the Magdalen laundries, orphanages and industrial schools brought together a system of forced labour, extreme violence, and physical, sexual and emotional abuse in a system that had more in common with gulags and concentration camps than with the care and well-being of women and children. As a nation and a State, we have only just begun to come to terms with the legacy of this awful time. Therefore, there is an onus on all of us, but especially on legislators, to ensure that people whose human rights have thus far been denied them as a result of this system are now guaranteed.

It is in this context that I welcome today's legislation which ensures that adopted people will from here on have the same rights as everyone else to access their birth certificates and other personal records once they reach 18 years of age. The Bill also assists adopted people and their birth parents to exchange contact details if they so wish. It also ensures the exchange of information from birth parents to their children regarding their family medical history.

The Bill establishes a central record under the auspices of the adoption authority where all records pertaining to adoption in Ireland from agencies, religious congregations, mother and baby homes, and so forth, will now be held. This is a very important practical step, but it is also hugely symbolic. We know, for example, that the gulag system was based on secrecy, shame and on state and institutional abuse of the most basic human rights of women and their children. A central feature of the entire system was a denial of people's humanity. Official records matter and they are more than just a piece of paper. At a very fundamental level, they acknowledge a person's existence. They give people a past and a sense of connectedness to a family history. In a very human sense, people have a lineage and are not all alone in the world. Therefore, I support this Bill.

There are a number of flaws in the Bill which have been articulated and I would accept that. That is what Committee Stage is about. If we feel the thrust of the Bill, the logic of the Bill, is important and that it is one that should be pursued, we should support it. Any difficulties we have with the Bill, including from the Government's side, can be addressed on Committee Stage. Therefore, I appeal to the Government to accept the Bill and to move it along. If the Government has concerns, as Sinn Féin does, let us use Committee Stage to address those concerns. However, let us support this Bill today and send out a message to those people who have been abused and let down by the State that we are on their side and that we will ensure that the mistakes of the past are corrected as best we can.

I welcome the Minister to the House for the debate. I commend Senators Power, van Turnhout and Healy Eames on bringing this Bill forward. I am delighted the Minister will be supporting the motion and that we all will be supporting it. It is very important. I look forward to it going before the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children. It is a very important Bill. Movement on the issue of access to information for adopted people and their natural parents is something that is a long time coming - from successive Governments - and I impress on the Minister the frustration that has deepened year on year for individuals who are affected by this.

I am delighted to support the Bill and the fact that the Minister will also be supporting it and referring it to the Committee on Health and Children. I welcome the intention to finalise the scheme and the heads of Bill as soon as possible. I hope this can be achieved for the sake of the many thousands of people who at present and into the future want access to their information, essentially their identity.

I received dozens of e-mails, as I know all my colleagues have, over the last few weeks, from people whose lives have been touched by adoption. Reading through the thoughts of these people was eye-opening for me. I am grateful to the people who contacted me and shared their very personal experiences and their frustrations regarding the difficulty in accessing their information, particularly their original birth certificates. Access to a birth certificate is something we take for granted. I receive numerous e-mails highlighting the great difficulty adopted people have in accessing their birth certificates, often spending many years researching and travelling to find out more information about themselves. There was one particular remark in an e-mail from an adoptee that struck me. The individual stated, "I am thirty years of age and I do not know what weight I was when I was born". It is a very simple sentence but it is particularly poignant. From my own experience, my own children would ask me on what day they were born, what weight they were, what they did. It is something very personal and so small - it is only a small detail - but is something very important. This person further highlighted the embarrassment that is felt when asked for a medical history by a doctor, as they do not know it. The relationship of the natural parent and the child is a matter which should be decided between them, with the assistance of a third party if necessary. Access to vital documents and information such as birth certificates and medical records needs to be urgently addressed.

Another adoptee who contacted me stated that as an adopted person who has searched for his mother, he firmly believes that greater transparency is needed to aid people in the search for their natural families. He told me he found his mother through dogged determination and hours of looking through birth records and that this does not need to be the case. He told me people will find their families without this Bill but the way things are now, they are a recipe for heartache. He said people are made to feel like they are wrong to want to find their birth family and asked whether, at the end of the day, it is not a person's right as a human being to know where one comes from?

I would challenge anyone to not feel disappointed with the services we are currently providing for individuals across the spectrum in relation to adoption. No one should be made to feel like they are wrong for wanting to know about themselves and where they came from. We need to provide the support and services necessary to those women, children and siblings who are searching for each other and more information about themselves. In recent years, we have attempted to deal with the past in relation to the Magdalen laundries and, more recently, symphysiotomy. Those women who were sent to mother and baby homes and those children who were adopted from a mother and baby home should have the opportunity to avail of a service which would assist, within set parameters, with gathering information, tracing or communication. Equally, all people affected by adoption and seeking information should have similar access to such a service.

I wish to also mention Philomena Lee who is a person who has highlighted this issue more than anyone in recent years. When the book and the film came out, it was a wonderful opportunity to open up the issue, particularly to younger generations who are maybe not as aware of adoption and things that have happened with adoption. I wish to publicly commend her for her courage and bravery in coming forward with her tragic story, which could so very easily have been avoided.

On a personal note, I know the joy that can be involved in finding one's birth parents. It happened a few years ago to a very good friend of mine who I never knew was adopted and who himself did not know until both his parents died. It was a very sad story where the mother had her son at a very young age. Her parents put her straight into a mother and baby home. Several years later she married the father of the child. They went on to have three other children, one of whom - his sister - unfortunately died when she was approximately 14 years of age. Through the change in recent years, and years and years of searching for each other, they did find each other. This brought joy, absolute joy, to this person. They were lucky unlike the person Senator Henry mentioned. There is joy in being able to find out one has siblings and of being able to find one's mother and father.

It is unbelievable. Everybody should have the opportunity to find out who they are.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Reilly. I echo all that has been reflected in today's contributions. There is a great deal of understanding of Senator Power's position. It cannot have been an easy journey for her in terms of drafting the Bill. I am sure she constantly relied on and received great co-operation from Senators van Turnhout and Healy Eames in drafting the Bill.

Notwithstanding what Senator Henry said, I will drift into another area. Listening to the contributions and reading through parts of the Bill, I was struck by the fact that it is a celebration of life. It is a celebration of Senator Power's life in the sense that her mother chose to give birth. In contemporary Ireland there are so many pressures on mothers to take a different route. I know it is a horrible thought, but let us suppose her mother had chosen to take that other route. This is not a judgment. As Pope Francis said, who am I to judge the circumstances in which an expectant mother finds herself and the choices she might wish to make. Sadly, it is happening every day of the week, not in this country but next door. I could not help but think that it is a wonderful, joyous thing that this Bill is about life and the celebration of life. In a sense, it is attempting to square a circle, to fill in a missing gap for adopted children who wish to know their identity and background.

It must be a very painful experience when one becomes aware as a child that one is adopted. As Senator Walsh said, the warmth and Christian attitude of the parents who chose to adopt and the love they gave is evident. It is obvious that Senator Power is a very well-rounded person and sees this as an opportunity for her to reach out and help other adopted children who perhaps are not as blessed as she is in terms of her identity. I raised questions in previous discussions on the subject of timing and parents’ rights, but all of that is swept away in the context of what the Bill attempts to do and the reality of what faces an adopted person. That is on one side of the equation.

I fully support all that has been proposed in the Bill. I see it in the same way as Senator van Turnhout, as a basic human right. One should know one’s background and what is on one’s birth certificate. One could ask why it has taken so long for any Government to introduce such legislation in light of our neighbour’s experience. I recall being in this House when a former colleague, Senator Catherine McGuinness, raised the issue on a number of occasions. It was a very emotional thing for her to do, namely, to put on the record that she was an adopted child and look for some change and improvement at the time. That did not happen.

There is a great onus on the Minister, Deputy Reilly, to see the Bill through this time and to be the Minister responsible for that. He does not lack a sense of purpose. When he gets the bit between his teeth on an issue, he is like a dog with a bone, as he proved with his position on smoking, labelling and the legislation on sunbeds. He is to be commended on those issues which form part of his legacy. Good luck to him in that regard.

I am also interested in the other side of the equation, namely, the response of the natural mother. I note those who drafted the Bill were very sensitive in this area. If the natural mother decides not to become involved, there is nothing one can do about it. No law in the land will do anything about it. Is it not a cruel vista to imagine that an adopted child who wishes to know about his or her medical history cannot find out because the natural mother decides she does not want to revisit what might have been a very painful period in her life? I do not say that is a flaw in the legislation but encouragement must be provided in order that even if a natural mother does not want to make contact with an adopted child, at least she would be in a position to provide relevant information that could then be passed on through the adoption agency. There must be an independent stand-alone agency to deal with such matters and to process them in a sensitive manner. What I outlined are not flaws, as such, but they are difficulties that present, and even with the passage of the legislation they would still be faced by adoptive children, but at least the main thrust of the Bill, if implemented, would go a long way towards addressing a long-standing sore.

Many speakers have referred to Philomena Lee. There is no question but the film influenced me. It is a powerful testament of a history of which we should be at least questioning if not ashamed. It is difficult to imagine how such a thing could have happened in a so-called Christian country among people who profess Christianity and who presented themselves as better Christians than the rest of us. I do not understand how people did such horrible things to women who found themselves in the same situation as Philomena, whose children were effectively sold, and the situation was compounded by not allowing them to know what had happened to the children. I accept we are talking about the past rather than the future, but it was a cruel thing and for that reason if no other, the Bill is not only worthy of support but, morally and in every other way, must be supported.

I was not going to speak but it would be remiss of me not to say something. I was previously asked to speak but I hesitated. My presence here today is an indication of my full support for the Bill. I congratulate Senators Power, van Turnhout and Healy Eames.

The point has been made by previous speakers that the Bill is important for genetic reasons alone. I recognise the difficulties for some mothers and their right to privacy and to remain anonymous if they so wish. I agree with Senator van Turnhout’s point that the Bill reaches out to every household in the country. The right to know who one is is a basic human right. Some adopted children do not wish to trace their parents for whatever reason, and that is also their right. Change is long overdue.

I was considered to be adopted. I was one of four children and my mother died when she was 30. I was adopted by my granny and we were farmed out to other uncles and aunts. It was a different form of adoption but I recognise how difficult it was in those days.

I know my parents but there are people who do not know their parents. I know who was good to me over the years and who helped in those important years.

Every child has the right to know their identity. It is a basic human right and I wish this Bill every success. I shall listen attentively to what reasons the Minster or the Government may have as to why it should not get unanimous support in both Houses. Acceptance of this legislation would be a major achievement for this Seanad and I congratulate my colleagues for bringing it forward. Those sentiments are from my heart. Go raibh maith agat.

I welcome the Minister to the House and welcome the visitors seated in the Visitors Gallery. I acknowledge and commend the work of Dr. Fergus Ryan who is in the Visitors Gallery because he had a large part to play in the drafting of the Bill. I commend Senators Power, van Turnhout and Healy Eames for their work in preparing the Bill and presenting it to us this evening. They have given us an opportunity to speak on a very important issue. There is real consensus in the House on the need for such legislation. I am delighted that the Government will support the Bill on Second Stage and the fact that it supports the principles behind the legislation.

It is very good to see another Seanad Private Members' Bill supported and accepted in this way by Government. We have had a precedent for this with quite a number of other Bills, which colleagues on both sides are well aware of. Both Opposition and Government Members Bills have been adopted by Government, either adopted fully by Government or parts incorporated into later Government Bills. Either way, the important thing is that we have contributed to the making of legislation in the most direct way which is hugely important.

The right to an identity is an important issue. Many colleagues have spoken eloquently about their personal or family experiences. I do not have that direct experience but as a practitioner, as a practising barrister in the past, I did a lot of work representing survivors of abuse before the Residential Institutions Redress Board. For many of the people whom I represented, and who had spent time in institutions as children, the right to an identity was critical. In many cases the search for information about their birth parents and origins was a hugely important part of their resolution of the issues around abuse and the institutionalisation that they had endured. On a practical level as a legal representative, the difficulty in seeking to obtain information was immense in many cases with all sorts of obstructionism from different bodies - statutory, non-statutory, State and non-State agencies. I also wish to acknowledge the important work done by groups like Barnardos in assisting people and giving support in tracing identity.

This Bill seeks to address not only the core issue of the right to identity and access to personal documentation, such as birth certificates and medical records, but it also addresses the issues around the practical arrangements of access to information. The legislation provides, for example, for the centralisation of adoption records in one place. I know from experience that such an initiative is a hugely important part of the process of seeking information.

There are complex issues on the balancing of rights. For example, the right to privacy when we talk about retrospective adoptions or adoptions in the past. It is much easier to legislate for adoptions that will occur in the future where there will be knowledge of the legislation conditions whereby information will be obtainable. We are dealing with situations, and I have spoken with colleagues and with Senator Power and all of us are aware, where people have never spoken about birth parents or having given a child up for adoption. There are sensitivities that must be respected.

This Bill achieves a careful balancing of the rights at stake. It does not trespass on the privacy of those individuals who wish to have privacy respected and it is not just the parents. As Senator Power has also acknowledged, there may be children whose birth parents have searched for them and who do not wish to have records released. That is a sensitivity that needs to be respected.

The Bill ensures that both adoptees and natural parents may accept or decline for their contact details to be released but there cannot be a veto on the release of the birth certificate which is important. It is also important that the Bill provides for reasonable time limits that are not too short because there may be very difficult issues involved in accessing information, particularly where people do not wish to be contacted. The Bill also makes provision for supports to be provided where information is sought.

The Bill is well constructed and well drafted. I know the Government is working on the heads of a Bill and that many of the issues in this Bill will also be addressed by the Government. There are issues around the management of adoption records, which this Bill addresses, the circumstances for provision of information, issues around both retrospective and prospective adoption, and issues around support services for those who are involved in accessing information and tracing identities. There is a good deal of work which is being done at Government level but today's Bill will assist in that work. I hope that we will see, before too long, the culmination of that work in legislation that is passed into law and goes beyond Second Stage. I hope that this Bill will progress further and I am delighted that we can all support it tonight in the House.

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, agus cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire.

I have very little to say on the Bill other than to acknowledge the great bravery of the Senator who brought it to the House and those who seconded it, including Senator Healy Eames. Members have bravely opened up about their personal lives in here in order to make Ireland a better place for those who have been adopted or have had their children adopted. We should acknowledge their bravery. We should make this Bill work instead of finding issues and technical issues that will hold it up. If there are things that need to done then let us do them as an entire Oireachtas and not mess about waiting for the heads of a Bill to come from elsewhere.

In my personal experience I am aware of a woman who fell pregnant some time after her husband died.

Not fell pregnant but got pregnant.

Sorry, got pregnant some time after her husband died. The woman was taken from the farm that she had been left, she was placed in a mental hospital, her two sons were sent to Letterfrack and her daughter was sent to America. The child that was born as a result was sent to be fostered. It so happened that a relation of mine who happened to be in Merlin Park Hospital met the child 75 years later and on hearing his name said "My God, I have a cousin with the same name". That means a brother and half-brother lived within 20 miles of one another for 75 years but never knew of each other's existence. Let us not play games with this Bill and get it passed because 50,000 in this country are waiting for this to happen. I ask the Minister to do whatever it takes and use his good offices to ensure the Bill is brought the full way through the Oireachtas and passed.

Again, I compliment Senator Power on the very brave thing she has done today and congratulate her. I am proud to be in this House on the day that somebody brought forward such a Bill. Congratulations, Senator.

Ba mhaith liom tacú leis an méid a bhí le rá ag an Seanadóir Ó Creachmhaoil. Caithfimid leanúint ar aghaidh leis an mBille seo agus caithfimid é a chur tríd na céimeanna sa Teach seo go dtí go dtéann sé go dtí an Dáil. Táimse ag súil nach dtéann an Bille seo go dtí an coiste. Beidh deis ansin rudaí a mhoilliú agus an dul chun cinn sa Bhille seo a stopadh. Tá an baol sin ann.

Ba mhaith liom m'ómós a chur in iúl don Seanadóir de Paor. Mar a dúirt an Seanadóir Ó Creachmhaoil, is rud an-chrógach a rinne sí anseo inniu agus a scéal féin á chur ós comhair an phobail agus í ag úsáid a taithí féin agus a scéal féin chun rudaí a dhéanamh níos fearr do dhaoine eile agus an cás céanna acu. Bhí a lán rudaí a tharla in Éirinn fadó nach raibh ceart. Rinneadh na rudaí sin ag an am ar fáthanna a bhí ceart ag an am. Tá a lán grá ann. Tá a lán brón ann freisin maidir leis an ábhar seo. Tá roinnt daoine trína chéile ach, mar a dúirt an Seanadóir de Paor cheana féin, ní chóir do dhaoine bheith ag mothú trína chéile nó bheith buartha faoin reachtaíocht seo, má chuirfear i bhfeidhm í.

Ba cheart go mbeadh áthas ar dhaoine go bhfuil an Oireachtas seo ag obair i gceart. Nach mbeadh an áit seo i bhfad níos fearr dá mbeadh an Teach eile ag obair mar seo agus dá mbeadh an Seanad ag obair mar seo i bhfad níos mó, sa chaoi go mb'fhéidir go mbeimis ag caint faoi Chéim an Choiste maidir leis an mBille seo an tseachtain seo chugainn nó an tseachtain ina dhiaidh sin?

Táimse ag tacaíocht leis an mBille. Táim ag iarraidh m'omós freisin a chur in iúl don Dochtúir Ó Riain. Tá aithne agam air ó Choláiste na Tríonóide agus is dlíodóir agus abhcóide den scoth é i Maigh Nuad anois. Nach bhfuil sé go hiontach go bhfuil daoine ar nós an Dochtúir Ó Riain in ann a lán ama a chur isteach i saothar mar seo ar son an phobail agus ar son na tíre?

Táim ag rá go géar leis an Aire - agus measaim féin go n-aontóidh mo pháirtí agus mo chomhghleacaithe liom, ach beidh an Seanadóir de Paor in ann labhairt agus a tuairim féin a chur in iúl ag deireadh na díospóireachta seo - nár cheart an Bille seo a chur go dtí an Coiste Sláinte. Measaim gur cheart an próiseas a leanúint sa Seanad agus go mb'fhéidir go rachaimid ar aghaidh go Chéim an Choiste an tseachtain seo chugainn nó an tseachtain ina dhiaidh sin. Is é sin an sórt dul chun cinn atá ag teastáil uaimse.

I thank the Seanad for the opportunity to debate this important matter. I thank Senators Power, van Turnhout and Healy Eames for the time and effort they put into developing this Private Members’ Bill, as well as to Dr. Fergus Ryan, the legal expert who provided assistance in this process.

It is often the case legal instruments lag behind current thinking in a particular domain. This is especially true for adoption. My predecessor has already decided not to oppose a Private Members’ Bill proposed by Deputy Anne Ferris dealing with open adoption. At that time it was noted the practice was for more open adoption arrangements, even though Irish adoption legislation did not provide for it. I do not intend to oppose this Bill either.

The history of adoption in Ireland and worldwide means that it is often portrayed in a very negative light. We should be mindful, however, that many have had a positive experience of adoption. I recently attended the annual conference of the International Adoption Association, an Irish support group for Irish prospective adopters involved in inter-country adoption. Presentations were made at that conference by four adopted people and by a family who had adopted several children. P.J. Gallagher, the well-known, newspaper-wielding comedian, was one of those adoptees. All asked that the positive aspects of adoption be highlighted. All stated the love of their adopted parents was the most important thing in their lives.

The most appropriate and ideal scenario is that a child is reared by its natural parents. We also have to recognise, however, that where that is not possible, appropriate long-term placement solutions have to include adoption. This includes children placed here through inter-country adoption who may otherwise spend long periods of their lives in residential or care settings that do not afford the loving and nurturing environment that a permanent family care setting can bring. Many of those seeking information about their natural parents have emphasised the support they got from their adoptive parents in their quest for information. Senator Healy Eames made that very clear earlier. We must all be mindful of the responsibilities of adoptive parents in regard to assisting children when they start to ask questions about their background and identity.

I have also met many people who have been adversely affected by the adoption regime that existed in Ireland in the last century. These include people who discovered late in life that the people they thought were their birth parents were in fact not. There are people who, decades later, still have not been able to reconnect with a birth parent or child. There are women who never saw the baby they delivered. There are women who had no option, regrettably, but to give up a baby whose loss they would mourn for the rest of their lives. There are many women who simply had their babies taken from them.

The statistical evidence of the national adoption contact preference register is that mothers whose children were adopted in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s have not come forward in significant numbers, even if only to provide important medical information to the child they had to give up. Since I became Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I have met many adoption groups and heard many painful stories of how young mothers were bullied and cajoled as their babies were taken from them. They were led to believe they would be in breach of the law of God and man if they ever tried to make contact with their child. With this in mind, I strongly encourage those mothers to contact the Adoption Authority of Ireland to assist with the provision of medical information. I also encourage them to consider making contact with Tusla, or the Adoption Authority of Ireland, where they will be afforded confidentiality, care and empathy, as well as the opportunity to get professional counselling about a period of their life that I am sure still causes them pain.

I have asked officials in my Department to examine the Adoption (Identity and Information) Bill 2014. There is much to commend in it. Regarding the areas of concern it addresses, it is very much in line with the tenor of the draft Bill being prepared in my Department. However, the regime envisaged in the Private Members’ Bill differs in that it does not differentiate between prospective and retrospective adoptions. In that respect, it does not address the complex constitutional issues that arise in the provision of identifying information to those who were adopted under the Adoption Act 1952.

I envisage a comprehensive restructuring of the adoption information and tracing service including the following matters which go beyond the provisions of this Private Members’ Bill: it will set out the information to be provided and circumstances in which it can be provided both for retrospective and prospective adoptions; it will set out arrangements for the management of adoption records; place the national adoption contact preference register on a statutory basis; and provide for information and tracing supports.

My overall policy objective in bringing forward proposed legislation on adoption information and tracing has always been to provide people affected by adoption with access to as much information as possible. I intend to be explicit about the information that will have to be retained for future adoptions. I will ensure that, on reaching adulthood, any person whose adoption is registered in Ireland will have access to identifying information. This will require a radical overhaul of the Adoption Act 2010. In future adoptions, birth parents and prospective adoptive parents will be aware from the outset that, on reaching adulthood, an adopted person will be provided with full identifying information on request.

It is clear any legal measures will have to be supported by improved processes and services to facilitate people affected by adoption to have greater access to birth records where the law permits it. All records relating to adoption, including less formal care arrangements that operated historically, will be managed and maintained on a statutory basis in a secure and appropriate fashion.

I intend to put the national contact preference register on a statutory basis. This will secure the register in the future, provide consistency in the information gathered for the register and will allow the register to operate proactively. The issue of inter-country adoption and future tracing needs for those children adopted from outside Ireland will need careful consideration. Since 1991, nearly 50% of all adoptions processed by the Adoption Authority of Ireland were inter-country adoptions.

These children become Irish citizens, and it is imperative that every effort is made to ensure their access to identifying information when they ask for it. The Senators' Bill also provides for counselling for persons involved in the information and tracing process. I assure Senators that counselling is central to current and future service provision.

It is critical that everyone affected by adoption who approaches the Adoption Authority, the Child and Family Agency, or accredited service providers is offered appropriate support and is treated with sensitivity and understanding. Counselling is provided by professional staff and is often provided long after the tracing process has been addressed, because adoption is a lifelong story. In the legislation I am preparing I intend to ensure that counselling and support is offered to everyone who needs and wants it.

The legal advice I have received indicates that a right to know one's identity flows from the legal relationship between a birth mother and her child. However, the effect of an adoption order is to restrict that right to know. Thus, there is a difficulty surrounding the notion that a birth mother's constitutional right to privacy can be dispensed with or retrospectively changed by new legislation. The proposed adoption (tracing and information) Bill 2014 will be explicit on the information that must be provided for all future adoptions. All who consent to an adoption will be fully aware of the information that will be available to an adopted person, on request, once he or she reaches 18 years of age.

In regard to adoptions that have taken place in the past, the issue is far more complex. I am advised that the proposed legislation can provide for retrospective identifying information to be given to an adopted person, but some restrictions must apply in relation to birth mothers who wish to protect their right to privacy. I look forward to working with the Senators to progress this issue.

The Department will continue to engage with the Office of the Attorney General in finalising the legislation on adoption information and tracing being prepared by the Department. As soon as this work is concluded I intend to seek Government approval to refer the general scheme and heads of the adoption (tracing and information) Bill to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children for consideration.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to enact legislation to consolidate and reform the law on adoption. The constitutional referendum on children incorporated an important provision proposing to amend the Irish Constitution to widen the scope for the adoption of children of marriage in Ireland. To coincide with this referendum, a general scheme and heads of a draft adoption (amendment) Bill 2012 was published. This showed, using the format of a detailed Bill, the Government's legislative proposals in the event that the amendment of the Constitution is passed. Senators are aware that there are outstanding proceedings in the courts that prevent the finalisation of the constitutional amendment. It is my intention to introduce the adoption (amendment) Bill to facilitate the adoption of children of marriage as soon as these constitutional matters are completed. Furthermore, the issue of step-parent adoption is under review, and I hope it can be addressed in the context of the children and family relationships Bill. The policy intention is to include provisions for step-parent adoption without requiring a child's mother or father to also adopt his or her own child.

I commend all those who have heightened the recent focus on adoption and issues related to the historic care of children. The efforts of Deputy Anne Ferris and Senators Power, van Turnhout and Healy Eames have done much to inform the debate. They and others have highlighted the fact that adopted persons have a lifelong and evolving adoption story and the need for adopted persons to investigate that story. My priority is to enact adoption legislation following from the children's referendum and to provide for legislation on adoption information and tracing. In line with the commitment in the programme for Government, it is timely that a review of adoption law more generally takes place with a view to its modernisation.

I hope that this review, my own consideration of the Act, submissions received from stakeholders and the contents of the Bills proposed by Senators Power, van Turnhout and Healy Eames, and Deputy Anne Ferris previously, will all inform the reform process for adoption legislation in Ireland. Consideration of all these issues by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children will greatly facilitate progress on this very important component of the modernisation of adoption law. I know this issue causes a lot of pain and I know the great need people have to know their identity. I look forward to working with the Senators to progress this. I thank all the Senators, but in particular Senator Power for her contribution to and work on the Bill. No one can doubt her commitment, courage or sincerity on this issue.

I wholeheartedly thank Senators Burke and Moloney who were the main Government spokespersons on this issue. I know they researched and thought through the Bill before deciding to support it. I also note that in their opening remarks they said this Bill should be allowed to move forward and be amended if necessary on Committee Stage. I appreciate that they said we should all work to help progress it and I look forward to working with them and other Members to do that. I thank every other Senator who contributed to this debate, all of whom spoke with interest and sincerity. Senator Brennan shared his own story, which is difficult to do. In speaking out I feel that I am in a position to do something. I have been fortunate enough to find my mum and this Bill will not make any difference to me, but it would be wrong for me to be in this position and not use it to achieve something positive. That has been my motivation but I know it is difficult and I appreciate that Senator Brennan chose to do that today. It is important to use our personal experience to make a difference to other people. Senators mentioned e-mails they have received over recent weeks and I thank them for reading those and engaging with, and listening to, people.

Senator Henry pointed out that reunion does not always work well. That is true but there are many positive stories. Many women contacted me who were petrified for years that somebody would find out and who did not tell their families or their children. When their adult son or daughter contacted them and they told the family, the family could not believe they had not been told. The response was, “You are my mum, I love you. I can’t believe it. This isn’t 1953, this is 2014. Why would you carry that pain, why wouldn’t you let us carry it with you? Why wouldn’t you reach out and talk?” That has been the experience of the majority of women and it is important to note that too.

The Bill provides that everybody is different but it provides the right safeguards and supports to enable people to do that. That is far better than the enforced silence and failure to deal with it that we have had to date. I note the Minister said that legislation can provide for retrospective identifying information to be given to the adopted person. That is indeed the case. He distinguished between retrospective and prospective adoptions. I welcome the fact that he is speaking more strongly about future adoptions and that he is working towards an open adoption system. There are, however, 50,000 people who were adopted in the past and we must do right by them. While the number of people adopted in this country now is tiny, all of those adoptions should be open. The issue that needs to be grasped is how to reach out to people who were the subject of secretive, forced adoptions and help adopted people find their own identities and help mothers find comfort by reuniting with their lost children.

I am extremely disappointed by the Minister's statement that instead of adopting this Bill he will consider it as part of the work on the information and tracing Bill which the Government promised almost four years ago and which we have not seen. The Government has just over a year to run. That legislation will take time to come through. Philomena Lee’s son died before she found him. Other people have had the same experience. These women are not getting any younger. Every day that passes is one on which somebody else misses that opportunity. There is a Bill before the House today. As Senator Craughwell said, it would be wrong to take the typical Government-Opposition line and say thanks for drafting an excellent Bill, thanks to Fergus Ryan for reading through all the constitutional issues, we will take it on board but we will draft our own Bill.

There is no need to do that. We have cross-party support across the House. I know there are Members in the Government parties who feel strongly about this as well and want to progress it as much as I do. I would be happy to have input from the Minister if he has amendments to suggest on Committee Stage, or if the health committee, interest groups or anyone else wants to feed into that. My intention is that we continue as a House to progress this legislation, to take Committee Stage. I hope that colleagues will embrace that process and work with us. We need to put aside the typical old politics of Government versus Opposition and all work together on this. As I said at the start, this is a particularly important area that should be far above party politics. We should all be putting our heads together and working on it. I welcome the two Government spokespersons' statements to that effect at the outset and I look forward to working with them.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 25 November 2014.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.