Indo col 49 from a few weeks back, for the day that’s in it.
I have no idea who I spent the first six weeks of my life with. I can tell you roughly where I was – St. Patrick’s Infant Hospital in Temple Hill – but as for who cared for me there, I know nothing. I have four children, so I know the fuss and the excitement of a new baby in those first weeks, when all the relatives queue up to cuddle them or squeeze their cheeks or try to figure out who they look like. During those times I often thought about my first six weeks of life – who was there to care for me? Because we certainly weren’t loved. Our needs were catered for, but nobody tasked with looking after a room full of newborns is going to bond with them all that much. I wonder if, during that six weeks, some part of me changed – if a little piece of my humanity died as my primal self realised that my parents were not coming back for me. But that odd period of limbo matters less and less as I get older, as I know what came after and – more importantly – what came before.
I knew it was only a matter of time until adoption got dragged into the abortion referendum debate, but in a way I am glad it was by someone with the credibility of Fidelma Healy Eames, who I previously knew for her lapsed tax discs, unpaid plumber, and inability to say the word WiFi without lapsing into a comedic ‘Allo ‘Allo-style French accent.
Healy Eames has two adopted children, which inspired her to set up a website that attempts to pitch adoption as some sort of alternative to abortion. Please allow me to clear my throat – this isn’t a science fiction film, where we can rattle out what-ifs as though they are any kind of tangible alternative reality. The paths never diverged in the yellow wood, and there is no point in saying that if abortion was legal in 1975, I would not be here. It is as weak an argument as asking ‘what if Hitler had been aborted?’ and yet here we are. It’s a facile argument that is often used by the religious right as they try to force you to see a cluster of cells as a walking, talking human being, but that simply isn’t the case. In those first weeks of pregnancy, in your heart and in your mind, there may be a child, but in medical reality, there is not. So with all due respect to Healy Eames and her website – which features largely anonymous, presumably verified soundbites from people about how great adoption is – unless you are actually adopted, you don’t really know what it’s like.
I always knew I was adopted. My parents even celebrated a second birthday for me, to mark the day they brought me home. I had an older sister who was also adopted, and it is usually at this point that I have to start explaining how adoption works – no, we were not blood relatives, no, my sister and I did not have the same biological parents, no, we were not adopted at the same time, in a sort of twin-pack buy-one-get-one-free deal at St Patrick’s. We were adopted, two years apart.
My parents were, much like Healy Eames, deeply religious people who were products of that oppressive 1950s Catholicism, the same system that taught young men and women that desire was shameful, contraception was a sin, and you went to hell for having a baby out of wedlock; the same Church that believed adopted people don’t deserve to know who they are and where they came from.
My sister’s biological parents got in touch with her when she was in her early twenties. They had wanted to keep her, but in the cruel Ireland of the 1970s, there were few options. After they put her up for adoption, they got married, and had a family, a surprisingly common occurrence. My sister met with her birth mother a few times, and things seemed to be going well. Then one day in April 1996, my sister suffered a massive heart attack caused by her epilepsy and died, aged just 22. I realised that life is short, so I started looking for my birth family.
I met my birth mother more than two decades ago. I also tracked down my biological father, who had passed away by the time I got in touch – and this is where a very practical aspect of adoption comes in. While the Church chose to eradicate all trace of our past and identity so we never knew if we were the result of an act of love, violence or incest, the absence of a basic family medical history means that we didn’t even know what health problems we might face.
My biological father died from cancer, and was just a few years older than I am now. I understand why St Patrick’s Guild couldn’t start giving a full rundown of medical backgrounds, as that might look a bit too much like a eugenics programme. After all, no Church organisation wants to accept that people might want to choose between having a child that grows up in perfect health or one that struggles with sickness and pain every day. St Patrick’s wasn’t about choice, nor were they open about what they did with us in Temple Hill – the Adoption Rights Alliance tried to find out more about conditions in the hospital, and described St Patrick’s Guild as being ‘very uncooperative’, unsurprising when you consider that St Patrick’s were involved in the secret export of 572 children to the US for adoption from the 1940s to the 1970s – more than any other adoption agency. We were currency to them – taken from the ‘bad’ Catholics and given to the ‘good’ Catholics.
Adoption in and of itself is a necessity; there will always be room in Irish society for a functioning, open and transparent system, but to present it as some sort of ‘superior’ alternative to abortion is a grotesque oversimplification of two complex, utterly separate situations. I can’t speak for all adopted people, but I can say that I have lived an amazing life, and I love all of my confusing, messy family. I’m not bitter about my experience, but I know that finding out where I came from made my path through life considerably easier. My parents, if they were alive, would tell you the same. If Healy Eames wants to celebrate the joy that having adopted children has brought to her life, perhaps she should do so without using it to drive a pro-life agenda.
Reading this column isn’t going to change your mind on how you will vote, and frankly the last thing the abortion referendum debate needed was another opinion being flung into the gyre, but if adopted people are going to be dragged into this and used as leverage, or told that their state of perpetual unknowing was somehow the best case scenario, I can’t stay silent. The experience of being adopted isn’t something that can be wrapped up in an ugly website with stock photos, vague testimonies, overuse of capital letters, and a request for donations at the end of every page.