Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Adoption follies

Without a lot of fanfare, Bill 183 is inching towards the finish line in the Ontario legislature. If it becomes law, the Bill will allow adopted individuals who reach the age of eighteen to access their birth records, usually including the name of the birth mother, and, "at times," the birth father. Birth parents will have access to adoption records when the child is nineteen, including the names of the adopting parents.

Presently, a birth parent or an adopted child has the right to place his or her name on a register, allowing contact in the case of a match occurring. That affords full rights to privacy unless both parties agree to give it up. But no possibility of a disclosure veto is contained in the current Bill, other than persons who were abused by their birth parents, and other exceptions to be decided by a tribunal. Actual contact can be vetoed, but information about individuals will be made readily accessible, regardless of consent.

Unaccountably, the provisions of the current law that permit the disclosure of non-identifying medical information to adoptees--uncontroversial on any side of this debate--is being repealed. Vital medical history that could save the health or even the life of an adoptee, in other words, is to be traded away for intrusive personal information.

My declaration of interest: I'm adopted. And I strongly oppose this Bill. It's an abomination. Far from "moving adoption disclosure laws into the 21st century," as a press release from Ontario's Ministry of Community and Social Services trumpets, it turns the clock back by several decades--almost eight in fact (it was 78 years ago that adoption records came to be sealed).

The "pro" arguments have been well canvassed by now within the legislature, as witness after witness has lined up to make presentations. To give the flavour of these, here are a few of the comments, and a few more, from Hansard:

We're very concerned that adult children of adoptees...should have the right to also know who their grandparents, their uncles and their aunts are for medical reasons, for psychological reasons, to fulfill a full sense of identity.


[I]n adulthood, many adoptees feel a deep-seated need to know of their roots, the circumstances of their birth and adoption and, in some cases, to connect with birth family. As adopted children wander in a sense of disorientation and genetic bewilderment, they can direct, on occasion, their confusion and pain toward their adoptive parents in hurt, anger, confusion and even rage.


My adopted mom spent many, many hours with me helping me in my search. She did that because she loves me and wants me to know everything possible about my history.


We look like you, we sound like you, we act like you; however, we're just a little bit different. We've grown up not knowing anything about who we are.

On the other side of this is Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, who makes a compelling case against retroactive application of the law unless a disclosure veto is included:

I keep thinking of the young girls who gave a baby up for adoption 20 years ago thinking they were safe, and never thinking that a government would reveal their secrets. Birth parents cannot simply be ignored--they have rights, too.

Other provinces have opened the adoption process, but have included the disclosure veto. Only in Ontario is the government poised to strip away the rights to privacy of birth parents and adoptees.

The quotes, above, with their references to "identity," "not knowing who we are," a "sense of disorientation," "history" and so on, illustrate what I can only regard as a pathology. This is, in fact, precisely Jean-Paul Sartre's notion of "bad faith": that is, pretending that one is not free. Indeed, that philosopher offers some crucial insights here.

Sartre gives a couple of famous examples of bad faith in his epic work, Being and Nothingness. One is a waiter in a café being just a little too "waiterly," revealing that he is playing at being a waiter, defining himself as an object rather than as a free human being, in this case as a role. Another is a woman who is on a date: her companion takes her hand, but she leaves it limply there, like a thing, refusing to choose to accept or reject the advance.

In the same way, the frantic individuals trying to track down their birth mothers, because mothers it usually is, are refusing to accept responsibility for who they are. They need someone else, in effect, to tell them. (Those looking for their lost children present a more complex set of issues, in my opinion, but the questions of privacy and consent remain.) Without making contact with their birth mothers, they are simply objects without an identity, a history, a sense of self. This seems to me akin to those who want to find out "who they are," their "purpose in life," by joining a cult, or (dare I say it) by becoming deeply involved in a mainstream religion. It's what Eric Fromm, describing the fascination of totalitarianism, rightly called an escape from freedom.

An article in the Globe & Mail yesterday sums up the problem in a nutshell, and does not bode well for those birth mothers who want to be left alone. Here's one Michelle Edmunds, after receiving photographs from her birth family: "I could actually look at those pictures and see myself." She continues, "It's my identity. How could anyone have the right to withhold that from me?" Her thirst for information, she says, "wasn't a choice. It was a physical craving....Telling an adopted child that you love them does not override the physical need [emphasis mine] to know your roots." She spent twenty years, we are told, feeling confused and thinking she could be related to everybody.

One can only be sympathetic to Ms. Edmunds and others like her. But do we want an army of such people loosed upon their birth mothers?

This is an issue that, for once, doesn't appear to fall neatly into the well-worn, dreary political polarities. I find myself, for the first time in my life, on the side of Norm Sterling, a veteran Conservative MPP who has called for the withdrawal of the Bill and its replacement with one that guarantees privacy rights. I find myself adamantly opposed to Marilyn Churley, NDP MPP who is pushing this Bill hard. Does she not see, for a start, the gendered nature of this--the fact that birth mothers (rarely the fathers) are now to be visited by ghosts from their past, after being guaranteed that their files would be sealed? Does she not shake her head in wonder that the government is proposing, at the same time, to cut off access to possibly vital medical information for adoptees?

I have less difficulty with having the new rules apply from now on: after all, births out of wedlock are hardly a stigma, and openness is to be preferred to shameful secretiveness as a matter of public policy. (Still, the "adoption, not abortion" folks are going to face a bit of a challenge if Bill 138 goes through in its present form.) But this is now, and that was then. Changing the rules of the game retroactively is not right, destroying people's lives to placate neurotics is not right, and people ought to let the Minister of Community and Social Services, Sandra Pupatello, know. Here’s her email: spupatello.mpp@liberal.ola.org. Why not drop her a line?

UPDATE: (September 19) I was contacted by a Ministry of Community and Social Services today, in response to a telephoned enquiry with respect to the issue of releasing non-identifying medical information. He noted that a section of the proposed Bill, Sn. 162, while vaguely-worded, provides regulatory authority to govern the release of such information.

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