The concept of 'rights' would seem one that most could agree on. Many of them are objectively clear and straightforward. As human beings we expect that everyone has the right to be provided adequate food, water, shelter and medical care. We expect that people have the right to feel safe from physical and psychological harm and that they have the right to make certain decisions about who they interact with, and in which ways.
Many of our laws are designed to protect the rights of the majority... the 'greater good'... as opposed to the individual. We don't have the right to drive above the speed limit or to ride motorbikes without helmets. Some laws are designed to protect young people from the potential harm of life-long decisions; in Australia a person under 18 cannot legally get a tattoo and a person under 16 needs parental permission for ear piercing. We don't allow young people to drink alcohol or drive cars until they are deemed mature enough to fully comprehend the responsibilities and consequences.
There are several areas within which the concept of 'rights' means an upholding of one person's 'right' even when it infringes another's. When these situations arise, rather than take the time to find a balance, people who have held vehemently to one right or another seem to dig their heels in and argue all the more loudly for their positioning.
One of these that threatens to create a new generation of people whose rights are infringed upon is adoption. I have spent the best part of the last decade listening to the stories of mothers who lost children to adoption in an era when this was seen as 'better' for their children and something they should just move on and forget about. Most of them describe situations where they experienced very little choice and some that they were forced or didn't even provide consent for adoption. I have images in my mind of the mothers who related stories of returning day after day to the hospital where they'd given birth, wanting to collect their baby only to be eventually told that their child had been given to a 'better' family and they should go home. The grief they carry today is palpable. There is no forgetting one's child. It is beyond heartbreaking.
Many of the mothers try to contact their now adult children, some find that their children don't want to meet them; others discover a hard reality; that the adult they meet does not make up for the infant they lost. The person in front of them is not the same person they would have been if they'd been raised by them. The losses remain even when a new way to build relationship is successful.
Over more recent years, the voices of adult adoptees have been added to those I've heard on this issue and they have a lot to say about the loss of their own rights. When adoption occurs a transaction is made whereby a child becomes the legal 'property' of another family. Their original birth certificate is replaced with one that states the new parents are their parents. The identity of the child is erased.
While some espouse that open adoptions have replaced the previous landscape of separation with a new model, this isn't strictly true. Open adoptions in most cases mean only occasional contact, and not always in person. Such contact rarely provides necessary time for true relationship building, and is fraught with challenges of its own.
What happens when that child grows up to be an adult with their own rights? Surprisingly this doesn't actually happen for adoptees. One would expect that all adults have certain rights to know their parents or other biological relatives. Yet people who were adopted as children don't have this right. They don't have the right to sever the adoption contract that was made for them as infants in order to return to their biological families, even when both parties want this to occur. Some feel they don't have the right to even seek such information when their childhoods have been replete with talk of how lucky they are to be adopted, when many are wondering how it is others think it is lucky to not be with their natural mothers.
Adoption is talked about as a solution for providing loving, stable 'for life' families for children, yet there is no guarantee of this, even when we grow up in our own biological families. There are many stories of people who did feel loved by their adoptive families and who love their adoptive parents. This does not negate the sense of loss they experienced, nor their need to belong with their 'own'. In many ways it adds to the guilt, confusion and trauma that many feel.
Being adopted doesn't prevent you from living a life where your parents divorce, experience financial hardship, or where you aren't abused or neglected in some way. There is no way of ensuring that adopted children are consistently, genuinely loved or cared for any more than this is possible in biological families. Yet we sold it in these ways for decades, and we are now building systems to do so again.
And many adult adoptees are rightly angry that their voices are missing from the discussion, that their rights remain infringed and that they are about to witness the same level of deceit and lifelong trauma inflicted on a new generation.
When we legislate 'rights' for individuals we need to take into account all the potential individuals impacted over time. No person has the 'right' to have a child. Children have a right to love, stability and safety but also the right to grow up knowing their biological parents. It is possible to do both without legal severing of those ties. It is time to look at alternative models of long term care that don't include this.
It is time to listen to those most affected; the children who have now grown up and are demanding their own rights.