Why keep a ‘promise’ that hurts birth mothers?

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Eileen McQuade and daughter Kathleen, relinquished in 1966

One of the most persistent myths surrounding adoption is that birth mothers like me were “promised” privacy to hide the shame of having had sex (and getting caught at it). Single pregnant women like me had few viable options, and did not consider the relinquishment of our child an exchange for the promise of privacy.

In the era of the 1950s-1970s “unwed,” pregnant and frightened women like me were shuffled off to maternity homes under a shroud of secrecy and shame. We were told we were unfit to be mothers and told to give our babies away to strangers. We were told to go home, tell no one, and forget it ever happened. (In my case, no one in the New York Catholic maternity home I stayed in ever made a single promise of privacy to me.)

I’ve never forgotten. And none of the hundreds of birth mothers I’ve known over the years have forgotten, either. We remembered our children and hoped that one day we might learn our child had grown up and was ok. Most of us want to be found.

But a few may have interpreted the circumstances surrounding us as a promise of secrecy. They may have been told (incorrectly, under Connecticut law before 1975) that no one would ever find out. Perhaps some promises were made even though this would have been contrary to the law.

These promises, even if they were made, now hurt birth mothers.

Today’s reality is that consumer DNA testing such as Ancestry.com is identifying birth mothers and fathers to adoptees who are searching. This is true regardless of what we wish, believe or what a (misinformed) social worker may or may not have said many years ago. We need to deal with this reality.

An adoptee who takes a DNA test learns the identity of every biological relative who has also tested, an ever-increasing pool. Following up with emails and social media, that distant relative is going to learn about the birth mother’s status in a very non-private way.

If we actually care about women who were so deeply shamed by society, we don’t have the moral luxury of keeping “promises” which, ironically, cause the very harm that they were meant to prevent. We need to face the facts. Adult adoptees who have their original birth certificate can make a direct, private contact with their birth mother instead of some distant cousin learning about it in their DNA test results.

Senate Bill 977 extends an existing 2014 law to pre-1983 adult adoptees to restore the right to an original birth certificate to all Connecticut adoptees. Let’s keep it in the family, between those personally affected, where it belongs.

Eileen McQuade is Secretary of Access Connecticut.

What do you think?

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