I propose to take Questions Nos. 649 and 650 together.
In considering the natural mother’s expectation of privacy in the adoption process, it is important to take account of the context in which adoption took place in the past. While adoption today is a child focused service, aimed at providing a family for a child where their own parents are unable to care for them, in the past, the focus of adoption was often on the needs of adults. This includes both adoptive parents, who may have been stigmatised as unable to have children, and also unmarried parents, in particular unmarried mothers of so-called “illegitimate” children.
In the development of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016, my Department received submissions from multiple stakeholders, including natural or birth parents, adoptive parents, and adopted people.
My Department has also had engagement with social workers who have years of experience working with natural mothers. These social workers have conveyed to the Department the serious concerns which some natural mothers have about the potential release of their information. In particular, they have indicated that, at the time of the child’s birth and placement for adoption, these birth mothers understood that their details would never be released. Some such birth mothers have spoken of how they were promised no contact would ever be made. It must be remembered that this happened in the context of secrecy around the adoption process in the past, and in a social climate where to be an unmarried mother was seen as shameful.
Many of these natural mothers were encouraged to keep the fact that they had placed a child for adoption secret, and have never told anyone, including their subsequent spouses and children. Consequently, the prospect of the release of their information makes them extremely fearful for the future of their relationships with their families, spouses, children, and wider community. It must also be remembered that many of these natural mothers are now at an advanced age, or are vulnerable for other reasons, including as survivors of incest and rape.
While there are many birth mothers who are happy to share their personal information with their children, it is clear this is not the case for all of them.
The advice received from the Attorney General in the development of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016 was clear: there must be some protection of birth parents' constitutional right to privacy reflected in the legislation. There are two rights at play - the right to identity and the right to privacy - and legislation must seek to harmonise these rights, as held by the Supreme Court in the I.O’T v B decision.
I am continuing to consider how best to progress these complex issues, and I intend to bring forward legislative proposals in due course.