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.