Irish Adoption Rights

Susan Lohan

In this interconnected world, adoption is definitely not national but international, especially in regards to adoptive parents in the US. I do have some Irish roots (thanking all that is good that I can even know this today). My adoptee father’s, paternal great-grandmother (if I have this right) was fully Irish (both of her parents were Irish born in Ireland.) So, what happened there, does matter to me here in this blog.

Today, I came across this story in The Guardian about Susan Lohan who is an adoption rights activist. She was adopted as a baby, and has been denied any information about her natural parents. Lohan has spent years fighting the church and state seeking for them to reveal what they know – about her (and the thousands of others like her born into the same situation). Similarly, hidden information that traps adoptees as second class citizens here in the US continues.

In the mid-60s in Ireland, up to 97% of all children born to unmarried mothers, like Lohan, were taken for adoption, mainly by the religious institutions and agencies that controlled social services and opposed reproductive choice. The married couple who adopted Lohan were loving parents, unlike some families in the past who took in children to use as free labor. A housewife and a shoe salesman, they were the rosary-reciting ideal of Catholic Ireland and their religious devotion would have been necessary to adopt a child. Couples needed a priest’s approval to adopt and sometimes even proof that they couldn’t have children biologically. Religious-run agencies had used adoption “as a mechanism to separate families” who didn’t meet the Catholic ideal. Lohan’s adoptive parents were told that her mother had died in childbirth but they were skeptical. Lohan always had an image in her mind of her mother as an unmarried girl, too young to keep her. She later found out that her mother had been in her 30s at the time, a civil servant who became president of a trade union. “She was not a woman who was easily intimidated,” Lohan says. “And even she felt unable to resist.”

Lohan now helps to run the Adoption Rights Alliance (ARA), which she co-founded more than a decade ago with fellow adoptees and activists Claire McGettrick, also adopted from an Irish Sisters of Charity institution, and Mari Steed, one of the “banished babies” adopted from Irish institutions to the US. The ARA campaigns for the estimated 100,000 adopted people in Ireland to have an equal right to their identity and information.

Lohan was about 21 years old when she met her mother, Nábla, for the first time. A social worker with the religious-run adoption agency made contact with Nábla and arranged and oversaw their meeting. At first, says Lohan, her mother had a stern demeanor but, as soon as they started talking, all that fell away and her mother spoke candidly. When Nábla had discovered she was pregnant, she was already maintaining the family home alone and supporting her brother studying overseas, as her own mother was dead and her father had left. There was no support for Nábla to keep her daughter – there was no welfare for unmarried mothers until the 1970s and, even after that, many were evicted or lost jobs if it was discovered they had children out of wedlock. So she was referred to St Patrick’s Guild, the adoption agency run by the Sisters of Charity. “We were not unwanted children,” says Lohan. “[Our mothers’] sexuality was unwanted. Their self-determination was unwanted.”

After their meeting, Lohan’s mother still kept her existence a secret and withdrew from contact for about four years until her death from cancer in 2000. “It broke my heart,” says Lohan, who was in her mid-30s at the time. “I think that was my first realization that I had been grieving the loss of my mother my whole life.” At her mother’s funeral, the priest spoke of “an additional sadness, because she was a single woman with no family of her own”. Lohan felt like screaming, not only at the untruth, but at the unending stigma.

Years later, having received no information about her father, she was meeting with an official from the adoption authority when he left her alone in a room with her file (she believes deliberately), which allowed her to find her father’s name. She went on to discover that her father had died in the 1990s, while she was searching for him. It would take her until 2016 to establish for certain that she had siblings.

Lohan has helped lead a successful political campaign against a bill that would have criminalized people adopted in Ireland for contacting their natural parents, punishable by a year in jail or a fine. In 2005, she was part of the advisory group launching the National Adoption Contact Preference Register, an initiative to enable people separated through Ireland’s adoption system to voluntarily register their interest in receiving information or contact.

An official review of adoption records has found evidence that tens of thousands of adoptions in Ireland potentially involved illegal practices. The Clann Project produced its own report on mother and baby institutions in Ireland. It found that the state’s policy involved the incarceration of thousands of women and girls and the separation of many thousands of children from their mothers “through a closed, secret, forced adoption system”.

How many more children will have to be born in Catholic-ethos hospitals and attend Catholic-ethos schools (90% of primary schools in Ireland are still under the influence of the Catholic church) because the church will not relinquish influence and the state will not ensure alternatives. “We should have absolute separation of church and state,” Lohan says. “It is long overdue.”

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