A DELICATE BALANCE

31 July 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The Government is to be commended for its intention to bring forward legislation that will endeavour to resolve some of the very difficult issues that have long surrounded the area of adoption in this country.

This week’s publication of the heads of the proposed Adoption Bill, and the discussion that has preceded and is likely to intensify following this move, can be seen as another stage in the social evolution of the nation.

For some time now we have been engaged in a purposeful process, although often a tentative and painful one, of shedding light on some of the darker corners of our recent history.

The exposure of the extent of historic institutional and clerical abuse of the young and vulnerable has been both traumatic and cathartic for Irish people.

As a collective experience it has been challenging and disturbing – it has compelled important change in some areas of law and made us a warier, more on-guard society when it comes to the protection and security of children.

It has made us a sadder, wiser people.

The experience has also arguably acted as an accelerant for the emerging process of addressing questions of tolerance and inclusiveness that had begun to trouble us as social progress brought a number of issues and the people they affected in from the margins and more towards the centre of national concerns.

The outcome of the same-sex marriage referendum and the vigorous discussion that surrounded it has perhaps more profoundly than the resultant constitutional change improved the condition of life for people of gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual orientation.

Irish LGBT people were given a voice and a visibility during the referendum experience that they had not previously collectively enjoyed and their time in the spotlight will surely have served to dispel some of the prejudices and misunderstandings they had been heir to.

It is less easy to persecute or discriminate against a group of human beings when the features of their common humanity are liberated into the collective consciousness – our recent referendum experience, more so than its ultimate outcome, made the humanity and entitlement to happiness of people of “different” sexual orientation brilliantly clear for all to see. It will no longer be they, but rather those who would practice persecution or exclusion against them, who will have to seek the darkness.

The situation of adopted people and their natural parents in this country is less advanced in its aspiration towards visibility and centrality.

The Adoption Bill now under formulation has the potential to improve their situation, and the debate it will engender should serve to enhance collective cognisance of a condition of Irish life shared by many but traditionally understood and sympathised with by few.

But the challenge to the framing of effective legislation in this area should not be underestimated.

Minister for Children James Reilly is faced with an extremely delicate task of balance.

The rights of adopted people to legal information pertaining to their birth parents, and the rights of those who have given children up for adoption to privacy, are not incompatible entitlements, but they do not harmonise easily.

Heretofore our laws have tended to cherish parental privacy more equally than the compelling need many adopted offspring harbour for knowledge about, and contact with, their birth fathers and mothers.

This imbalance must be corrected in the interests of social justice – it was itself given birth to in darker social times and let anachronistically linger due to the primacy of a form of conservative morality that also permitted the removal of children from single parents and the many illegal and wrongly registered adoptions that have created additional complications in an already legally elaborate and emotionally fraught area.

But legislating properly in this area is not a simple matter of now weighting the scales in favour of the rights of the adopted in order to make up for the mistakes of the past.

Proper parental safeguards can be maintained while still making it easier for adopted people to obtain their birth certificates and relevant medical and identifying information, and the law can and should resolve the current unsatisfactory situation in this regard.

The mechanism provided in the heads of bill to achieve this objective takes the form of a proposed new statutory scheme where people wishing to access birth records would be required to sign a statutory declaration binding them to abide by the wishes of birth parents who did not wish to be contacted. The condition of parental consent also attaches to the release of some forms of information, with an applicant for information having recourse to court appeal if they are unhappy with the outcome of their participation in the scheme.

The perilous nature of the balancing act the Minister is attempting has already been demonstrated by the reaction of one advocacy group, the Adoption Rights Alliance, to the proposals.

The Alliance perceives some of the conditions attached to the statutory scheme as a signing away of an adopted person’s rights, finding continued marginalisation and discrimination in its terrain.

But, if the conversation has started on a more adversarial note than Minister Reilly might ideally have wished, at least it has started – and the year of grace promised after the Bill’s publication for its provisions to be publicised and for birth parents to formally indicate their attitude as to contact with children, as well as the consultations that will accompany the codifying of its detail, offer plenty of scope for argument, advocacy and accord.

The very difficult emotional journey that adopted people and their natural parents make towards contact is not something that can or should be dictated or governed by legislation. But the support services that facilitate this journey surely require to be reinforced in terms of resources if genuine change for the betterment in the area of adoption is the compelling objective of the Government.

It is also hoped that the debate which will be generated around the Adoption Bill will give adopted people, and those who have given children up for adoption, the sense of journeying from the margins towards the centre of Irish life.

The perception of adoption as a dark secret that has to be kept for fear of discrimination and condemnation has persisted for too long in this country – if the shadow of that perception is finally banished by the new Bill and the discussion it generates, an equitable balancing act will certainly have been achieved.

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