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Toronto Star

The real shame about adoption

We don't need more sealed files or vetos that ensure even more secrecy

The Toronto Star, By Valerie Hauch, Toronto Star writer and editor, May 26, 2005

"Unmarried and pregnant - you have sinned. For shame!'' Such finger-wagging reproofs were not uncommon for a different generation of women who dared to have sex outside wedlock and unlucky enough to have it bear fruit.  In fact, moral denunciation of perceived wanton behaviour has been such a powerful force in society that it lingers today in the debate about whether to pass the provincial government's adoption disclosure bill.  

Ontario's Privacy Commissioner Anne Cavoukian says it will be an invasion of privacy for women who gave up babies if identifying information is released - their lives would be ruined.  But the government's proposed bill already carries a stringent "no contact'' veto that could be levied by the birth parent or adoptee.

In any event, to assume that adult adoptees are going to swoop down on their biological parents and admonish them for proceeding with adoptions, or make judgments of a moral nature, is absurd. What they want is information, knowledge, to find the missing pieces of the biological puzzle that is part of discovering self.

What adoptees are up against is the same sort of patronizing attitude that governments and society have taken for generations toward the voiceless person in the adoption equation: "Only we know what's best for this child and what's best is that the child know as little as possible."

To assume that the release of a birth name and other pieces of information is going to have such dramatic effect on a birth parent's life is to ensure that ancient, unjust, hypocritical more endure. That is the real shame.

Most reasonable people today would not look down on any woman who gave up her child for adoption.

The women who fear trauma in meeting the adult version of the baby they gave up - and some who became pregnant from rape or other awful situations have just cause - would not have to meet them, if they asserted a veto. To go farther with the veto, however, punishes the adoptee, who has the right to basic information that is part of his or her identity.

It is ironic that the societal system that contributed to the very trauma that unmarried pregnant women endured, in being pressured to give up their children, was so successful that even today those women fear what others would think of them if it were known they had an out-of-wedlock child.

The hospitals that used to encourage these young women to "forget" about the children they carried for nine months often advised them not to even look at their babies after birth.  I know, because I was one of those babies. My unmarried biological mother gave birth in Toronto in the 1950s but she didn't take the advice a nurse gave her. She took a look. And she decided not to put me up for adoption right away. She hoped, by placing me in private foster home, that she and my biological father could work things out.  Although they would go on to marry and stayed together for 20 years, they decided when I was 2 1/2 years old to put me up for adoption. It's a decision I respect, considering the circumstances and times. But it never meant I didn't want to meet them.

Many adoptees - and having met many over the years I've concluded it has nothing to do with whether their lives with their adoptive parents were happy or not - just want to know about their roots. They want to meet someone else with their nose, their penchant for drawing, their inexplicable love of water (once you meet a biological relative you become aware of the amazing possibilities that much more than hair colour is inherited.)

I don't believe any adoptee should expect involvement in a biological relative's life. But it can be serendipitous when it happens. That said, adoptees should be prepared for the fact that they may find people they don't like. If you can't ready yourself for any possibility, don't go looking.

In my case, it was easy to search. When I was adopted, the birth certificates still included the birth name (which in my case was my biological father's). I had the added advantage of having been baptized in Quebec (my mother is French Canadian). Quebec baptismal certificates included the parents' occupations. That made tracking down my biological father and sending him a letter (when I became an adult) fairly easy.  We've never met; his choice, his right. My choice and my right was to ask.

There was surprise on his side at being found, but no expression of trauma. However, I suspect if he'd been allowed a veto to me getting any identifying information - this is what Cavoukian is proposing - he would have used it.

And what a shame that would have been. I might not have found my biological mother, cousins, both my biological father's brothers and other relatives, many of whom have become very dear and enriched my life. I might never have found out my great-grandfather on one side was a poor immigrant from Spain who became a wealthy merchant in Newfoundland. The house he built is now a heritage home and bed-and-breakfast in St. John's.  I might not have learned that his daughter apparently dated one Chester Crosbie, father of former MP John, or that the Newfoundland family, at some point, was rumoured to have been involved in certain tradings of alcoholic substances back in the days when such dealings were, well, illegal, b'y.

I wouldn't have known about another relative who was considered a bit of a rebel in her day because she didn't want to get married, loved to sing and had a stunning voice and was paid to use it at weddings and other events. Eventually a man came along who caught her fancy or she wouldn't have ended up as my grandmother.  I'd never have gasped when I saw the picture of a great-aunt who looks uncannily like my daughter.

These are the stories of family. Everyone has them. Except adoptees. We don't need more sealed files and hidden records or vetos that ensure even more secrecy. We need openness, tolerance and a break with any mentality that smears "shame" on everyone involved in an unplanned pregnancy. Knowing our personal histories adds colour to our lives and makes us aware that we are not islands and alone, but part of an incredible, ongoing continuum of generations.

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