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Why we must adopt a loving approach to our unwanted children

By Mary Kenny

I had several childless aunts and uncles, and I knew that these couples were disappointed not to have a family. And yet the question of adoption never really arose. One of my aunts, indeed, had a friend who had been a nurse, who had adopted a child, and my aunt would sometimes marvel at such an extraordinary thing to do. "Amazing, when you think about it." What was amazing to her was that the woman and her husband would take in "a stranger's child".

After all, said my aunt, "you wouldn't know where the child had come from. There could be 'bad blood'."

Prejudice against adoption was actually quite widespread in Ireland in the years when I was growing up – let's say before the modernising watershed of the middle 1960s. It existed in other societies, too. I was surprised to hear my late brother-in-law – an Englishman – express some prejudice against adoption as recently as the 1980s. "You don't know what's in the family background," he said. "There could be madness, alcoholism, criminality."

But look, I said, if you examine any of our family trees, won't you find all kinds of bizarre stuff?

Ah, but. It's not the same. That was the attitude. And couples who adopted children were considered to be unbelievably kind and altruistic to do so.

In Ireland, I honestly believe that these attitudes came from the agricultural background, and the long traditions of animal husbandry. Agricultural people are more interested in "the blood line" than urban people. To this day, the British aristocracy does not accept an adopted child into full family rights – only a child of the "blood line" can inherit a title. And that's all based on land.

When adoption was being discussed in the Dail in the late 1940s, you could sense those prejudices in the parliamentary record, notably from country deputies. One TD said that adoption was "like interfering with the bloodstock book". It was said that if an adopted child inherited a farm, the blood family would feel that the land had gone to "a stranger".

In light of these attitudes, was it any wonder that so many Irish babies were exported to America? Martin Sixsmith, who originally told the story of Philomena Lee, has been following the trail of Irish babies who were sent off to the US in the 1950s and '60s from Irish mother-and-baby homes (and there is of course an ongoing commission of inquiry into the mother-and-baby institutions in Ireland). Sixsmith claims that 60,000 Irish mothers were removed from their families because the Catholic Church disapproved of their situation and many "exported" to America.

He has written that some children subsequently had good lives; others did not.

America never had the prejudices against adoption that obtained in the old world. The American tradition is much more about looking to the future, "pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and start all over again". Even when there was a European taboo against divorce remarriage was accepted in the US: you made a mistake, you moved to another state and you started afresh.

Similarly with adoption: to heck with shibboleths about "bad blood"! Give the kid a good life and start over! Small wonder, then, that America seemed a golden opportunity for babies who were regarded as "unwanted" in Ireland – whether their natural mother (and father) sought to keep them if they could have done.

I am not justifying the idea of despatching infants off to the US, let alone taking money for such a trade. But considering the prejudices about adoption in Ireland, it's not surprising that America seemed to offer a better chance. And it was all but impossible for an unwed mother to raise her child alone – unless her own family helped out, which many refused to do.

Today it has all changed, and in very many ways for the better. There is an Adoption Rights Alliance now which lobbies for increased entitlements for both natural mothers and adoptees to trace their own family links, and gradually attitudes are becoming more open. But it's never going to be all simple and straightforward (and the growing international practice of surrogate parenthood will surely prompt similar dilemmas in years to come).

I know a woman, born in the 1940s, who did everything to trace her birth mother: but the mother herself covered her tracks so carefully, using a false name at a maternity home, that it just proved impossible. That was, sadly, her choice.

There are also those like Michael Gove, the Tory politician, who has said that while he thanks his natural parents for life, he regards his adoptive mum and dad as his "real parents", and the biological link doesn't interest him.

Most recently, there was the distressing case of 'Ms Y', whose baby was born, in controversial circumstances, by Caesarean section in Dublin, at 25 weeks – even in the UK it would have been too late for an abortion. Ms Y has made it clear that she wants no further involvement with the child, and the infant will remain in the care of the State.

But this is where adoption emerges as an emblem of enlightenment.

There will be families that offer adoption to that neo-nate, and the decision will, hopefully, be made in the best interests of the child. Let's take the American view: for that baby, it's the future that matters. 'Considering the prejudices in Ireland, it's not surprising America seemed to offer a better chance'

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