The Tony Abbott reunion story has been a mixed blessing for those of us who provide support for those affected by adoption. At one level, I am glad everything has turned out so well. No doubt this is why the media has dealt with the story so liberally. Everyone likes stories with happy endings. At another level, I fear that it may have raised expectations for others that their story will also have a happy ending.
When high-profile figures go public about adoption, their story becomes a Rorschach test on which those affected by adoption project their hopes and fears. Everyone’s story in adoption is different, but there are common themes. The most common metaphor used to describe the emotional journey of search and reunion is “rollercoaster”. A range of emotions come into play, not only happiness and finding oneself at last, but also grief, rejection, guilt, loss, and identity-confusion. Through search and reunion adoptees and birth parents seek to gain mastery of their life, at the same they risk losing control. Having established a relationship with birth relatives, there is then the ongoing need to negotiate boundaries of intimacy and expectation.
There will always be potential pitfalls. Nevertheless, I believe that all adoptees and birth parents have a right to their original birth certificates. Whether or not people will seek contact with each other is entirely up to them. Beyond that basic right, there needs to be a lot of careful attention given to going about search and reunion in a way that recognises the mutual needs and interests of all those involved. For example, people should not rush into reunion, even if they have been waiting for 18 years (the age at which an adopted person is usually allowed access to information). They should be well prepared beforehand, equipping themselves not only for the outer journey of requesting documents and searching for addresses, but also for the inner journey of dealing with the emotions that may surface. It is wise to get to know as much about adoption as possible. This way one can understand, and hopefully appreciate, the range of possible experiences that may have led to the adoption.
Reunions should proceed at the pace of the slowest person involved. When individuals jump into reunion because they are ready, without considering the feelings of the other person, there are often problems. It’s a matter of ethics and good manners, combined with sensitivity to the needs of others. Adoption is awash with unrealistic expectations. Prior participation in an adoption support group can help develop positive attitudes while learning to listen carefully to others.
Except in the rarest of cases, biological parents and their children do not need to be protected from each other. They may, however, need time and space to deal with the impact of a reunion on their current relationships. Privacy is to be respected.
The Tony Abbott case exhibited may of the virtues needed for successful reunion: caution, compassion, responsibility, patience and, above all, honesty. As a community we need to remember that this is their story, not ours. Still, a lot of us affected by adoption are grateful that it has been given some prominence, if only for a moment.
Adoption affects the lives of millions of people in Australia. Each of the hundreds of thousands of adopted persons has two adopted parents and two birth parents. They have eight grandparents and an untold number of adopted and birth siblings. They may also have a spouse and their own children as well. All these people are affected in one way or another by adoption.
In the past, the needs of those affected by adoption were ignored. It was said that adopted families were just like other families. This is true, to a point. Adopted families are just like other families, except they also have to deal with the fact of adoption. There are a number of normative challenges facing birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees: issues such as grief, rejection, guilt, loss, identity, control and intimacy. Past adoption laws denied these emotional realities. My view is that legislative frameworks need to open a space for the families of adoption (birth and adoptive) to be rooted in truth and to be able to deal openly and honestly with issues as they arise.
You can’t legislate for kindness, but you can legislate to ensure that adequate post-adoption services exist to help individuals and families through the normative challenges of adoption throughout their lives. In the Australian context, the state has a special responsibility to provide these services, as it has claimed for itself the sole right to control and manage adoption. Much more can be done by governments, even though there has been a substantial fall in the number of adoptions in Australia since the early 1970s. This decline has also occurred in the USA and UK.
The two main reasons for this fall have been access to contraception and changing attitudes to sexuality and single parenting. There has been reduction in the stigma and shame attached to unwed pregnancy and single parenting. Although the introduction of single-parent pensions played some role, adoption rates also fell in countries where such support was not available. The right to conditional access to identifying information played no role in the decline (despite what the remaining few advocates of secrecy and closed adoption maintain), as the decline commenced a decade before these laws came in to effect in most states.
Why did people relinquish children? Shame and stigma played a part, but so too did the lack of support. Birth parents either lacked the financial resources to make independent decisions or were denied emotional or financial support by their parents. Often, the denial of emotional support was more devastating. Nowadays, no one is forced to relinquish a child because they are poor, and emotional support is provided to mothers during their pregnancy and early parenting. Despite claims in some quarters, there has been no conspiracy against adoption by governments or social workers. It is simply a fact that relinquishment, which can have a life-long impact, is no longer forced on birth parents by their current social circumstances.
In Australia in 2003-2004 there were only 73 local unrelated infant adoptions. Another 370 children were adopted from overseas. The rest were adopted by step-parents or other relatives. Out of a population of over 20 million people that is very low, and is extremely low compared to the 10,000 children adopted in 1971-1972. Far from reflecting an anti-adoption climate, this reflects the strong pro-family position that children should only be removed from their family of origin and placed for adoption as a last resort. Every adopted child is a bundle of joy wrapped up in sorrow. At the heart of every adoption is a tragedy, the breakdown of a family. There are now far more couples waiting to adopt an infant either locally or from overseas than there are adoptable children. Many will not have their wish fulfilled.
Tony Abbott asks that his story not be linked opportunistically to the abortion debate. Certainly, any claim that adoption is an alternative to abortion needs to be treated with extreme caution. An odd twist to this in the USA is the way in which advocates of closed systems of adoption, where birth records are kept sealed forever, have played the abortion card. They claim that granting individuals access to identifying information will increase the number of abortions. However, they have been proven wrong. In fact, there are more, not less, adoptions relative to the number of resident abortions in those states in the US where individuals have a right of access to information. I raise this only to indicate the way in which adoption has become highly politicised around the issue of access to information.
For many people, the attraction of the Tony Abbott story was that it gave us a non-political angle on an otherwise high-profile politician. As one headline put it, the connections were biological, not ideological. Or, as we say in adoption circles, “You can pick your friends; but you can’t pick your family”.