Adoption: Past, Present and the Philomena Project
In the first review for the Perceptions of Pregnancy website, Sylvia Tighe Murphy reports back from the Redefining Adoption in a New Era conference and reviews Philomena Lee’s address.
Last week I had the privilege of hearing Philomena Lee address an Adoption Conference at University College Cork. Redefining Adoption in a New Era: Opportunities & Challenges for Law & Practice sought to bring people together such as those who were adopted, natural/birth mothers, academics, and legal and social work practitioners. The general public may know of Philomena Lee’s life following the dramatization of her life story in the blockbuster movie Philomena. But the stark reality of what happened to Philomena nearly sixty years ago has no fairy tale ending. Philomena’s key note address was a reminder to us all of a time in Ireland that many might wish to forget where women who became pregnant outside of marriage were treated harshly, ostracised and put away.
You could have heard a pin drop in the room as Philomena recounted her story of being placed in a Mother & Baby Home in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Philomena had become pregnant, unaware of the facts of life. She told the audience of the forced adoption of her son Anthony to the United States when he was three and a half years old. She and her son were in the convent for over three years until the day he was taken away. She spoke movingly about how she kept her pregnancy and adoption a secret for fifty years. Philomena’s son had returned to Ireland on three occasions in an attempt to locate his mother, but in vain. It transpired that he had been told by a nun that his mother had abandoned him at two weeks old. Philomena’s son Anthony became the chief legal advisor to two Republican Presidents (Ronald Regan & George Bush Senior). Tragically he died before she could trace him. Philomena was supported during her two day attendance at the conference by her daughter Jane Libberton, and they now reside in Hertfordshire.
Mother & Baby Homes Scandal
Recent exposure of the Mother & Baby Homes scandal in Ireland has shone a light on a dark period of Irish social history. Philomena urged the Irish government to ensure the Terms of Reference of the Commission of Inquiry into the Mother & Baby Homes be broad and encompass every aspect of forced adoption. The rights of adopted people were also a source of dialogue at the Conference as today people struggle to access basic information relating to their identity and origins. Philomena agreed with advocacy groups such as Adoption Rights Alliance and Adoption Loss that a state apology for all the women and people affected by the practices of the past is necessary. The incredible 81 year old Limerick woman spoke about her hopes for changes to search and tracing systems for those individuals affected. Philomena’s story has led to the establishment of The Philomena Project, which aims to raise awareness in Ireland and internationally about the issue of forced and illegal adoptions and campaigns for the rights of Irish adopted people to access their birth certificates.
Anne Ferris’s Story
Anne Ferris, Labour Party TD (MP), gave the opening address at the Conference. Deputy Ferris recently put on the Dáil record her own personal story, as she too has been directly affected by adoption. Deputy Ferris praised Philomena Lee’s courage and fortitude. For many older women and adopted people, time is running out. Philomena called for Irish law to be changed to enable adopted people access direct and unrestricted access to details of their birth origins and identity. The Adoption Act 2010 is already outdated by international comparisons. Dr Simone McCaughren, one of the conference’s convenors, said, “There are no proper resources for adopted people or their mothers. Adopted people seeking to trace their mothers are now facing a delay of up to two years which is not good enough.”
Concealed Pregnancy in Ireland
In our current study into Concealed Pregnancy in contemporary Ireland, we are meeting women who like Philomena continue to conceal their pregnancy. However, like those who kept their pregnancy secret women are fearful of revealing their pregnancy in 2014 and are doing so in silence. Following Philomena’s call for a state apology and the exposure of practices in Irish Mother and Baby Homes it is timely that we as a nation consider how we respond to women who feel they must hide their pregnancy so that history does not repeat itself.
About the Author:
Sylvia Murphy Tighe is a midwife, public health nurse and currently a HRB Research Fellow/Doctoral Midwifery Student at the School of Nursing & Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin. Sylvia & Prof Joan Lalor are currently being funded by the Health Research Board to examine the nature and impact of Concealed Pregnancy in contemporary Ireland.