A nun called me a destroyer of lives’: how adoption rights activist Susan Lohan fought the Irish establishment

The Guardian – By Caelainn Hogan – Mar 21, 2022

Adopted as a baby, denied any information about her natural parents, Lohan has spent years fighting for the church and state to reveal what they know – about her and the thousands of others in the same position.

A “destroyer of lives”. That is what a nun called adoption rights activist Susan Lohan when she sought answers from the religious order that brokered her adoption. Instead of being given the truth, Lohan was told not to ask questions. She was born in 1964 to one of thousands of unmarried mothers forcibly separated from their children – usually women who had no choice but adoption due to their circumstances. In the mid-60s in Ireland, up to 97% of all children born to unmarried mothers, like Lohan, were taken for adoption, mainly by the religious institutions and agencies that controlled social services and opposed reproductive choice.

On our drive to her home in Malahide, a coastal suburb of Dublin where she lives with her husband and son, Lohan reels off the heritage of her dog, Flynn, happily sprawled on the back seat. She laughs at the fact that her dog had documents to prove his ancestry but, as an adopted person, Lohan had to fight for decades to access her own birth information.

The married couple who adopted Lohan were loving parents, unlike some families in the past who took in children to use as free labour. A housewife and a shoe salesman, they were the rosary-reciting ideal of Catholic Ireland and their religious devotion would have been necessary to adopt a child. Couples needed a priest’s approval to adopt and sometimes even proof that they couldn’t have children biologically. Lohan’s adoptive parents were told that her mother had died in childbirth but they were sceptical. Lohan always had an image in her mind of her mother as an unmarried girl, too young to keep her. She later found out that her mother had been in her 30s at the time, a civil servant who became president of a trade union. “She was not a woman who was easily intimidated,” Lohan says. “And even she felt unable to resist.”

While studying at University College Dublin in the early 80s, Lohan’s “eyes were opened on a lot of issues”. Contraception was difficult to get in Ireland, for example, and the anti-choice eighth amendment, which made the foetus’s life of equal value to the mother’s, was introduced in 1983. But systemic abuse within the Catholic church in Ireland was also being exposed and many, like Lohan, were beginning to understand how religious-run agencies had used adoption “as a mechanism to separate families” who didn’t meet the Catholic ideal.

Lohan was determined to search for her mother, even though her adoptive father initially discouraged her, suggesting that her mother “might not be respectable”, that she could be “an alcoholic, a drug addict, a sex worker, a criminal”. These were common and harmful stereotypes about unmarried mothers often reinforced by members of the religious orders. “The expression was: ‘Be very careful who you bring to our door,’” she says. Her father later apologised and advocated for adopted people to have the right to know their identity.

The term “rat” was also used by a Sisters of Charity nun to describe a baby at the religious-run holding centre where Lohan was sent after she was discharged from hospital. She weighed only 6lb when she was handed over to her adoptive parents.

In 1997, the Sisters of Charity admitted that their adoption agency had falsified records and given misleading information to people who were searching for each other. They said this was in order to safeguard the mothers’ identities. Even so, in recent years, the Sisters of Charity have received millions of euros in public funding from the Irish government (€3m –£2.4m – in 2018 alone, according to the Charities Regulator).

In 2017, Lohan joined thousands taking to the streets to protest against the state’s decision to build a new national maternity hospital on grounds owned by the Sisters of Charity. “How could you do this to the women of Ireland?” one placard read. Protests for public ownership of the hospital continue and, at a recent demonstration outside the government buildings in Dublin, organised by the Our Maternity Hospital Campaign Against Church Ownership of Women’s Healthcare and supported by the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Lohan spoke out against what she sees as the Irish state’s plan to give influence over a publicly funded institution for reproductive health that could cost €1bn to the same religious order that separated her from her mother.

“We should have absolute separation of church and state,” she says. “It is long overdue.”

Thousands of people adopted in Ireland are still denied the right to their identities. The Irish government is debating a bill to change legislation around access to birth and early life information but the ARA says it continues to discriminate. It is the fourth such bill in recent years and, until people adopted in Ireland have the unfettered right to their identity and information, Lohan will continue campaigning. The loss of precious time with her siblings is one injustice that motivates her, as is the knowledge that so many people like her are still searching.

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Posted by Teri Perticone

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