In the late 1960s, at the age of 19 and living far from home amid the thriving counterculture of Ottawa, Marilyn Churley got pregnant. Like thousands of other women of the time she kept the event a secret. Faced with few options, she gave the baby up for adoption.
Over 20 years later, as the Ontario NDP government's minister responsible for all birth, death, and adoption records, including those of her own child, Churley found herself in a surprising and powerful position—fully engaged in the long and difficult battle to reform adoption disclosure laws and find her son.
Both a personal and political story, her memoir, Shameless, is a powerful book about a mother's struggle with loss, love, secrets, andlies—and an adoption system shrouded in shame.
49th Shelf: Shameless makes clear that issues around adoption are feminist issues. What has changed since your experiences in the 1960s in terms of stigma around unplanned or unwanted pregnancies? What has stayed the same?
Marilyn Churley: Adoption is a feminist issue for many reasons. As I said in the introduction to Shameless, history shows that women have always been coerced into living their lives as society deems appropriate, and tormented, punished and shamed when they didn’t comply. The double standard around sexuality had long-lasting and devastating impacts on women who “got caught.” In the 1960s, most women who relinquished their babies to adoption were choiceless and then after losing their babies to adoption they were rendered voiceless. Nobody wanted to hear from them, not even the feminist movement.
I consider adoption a reproductive rights issue in that the right for a woman to raise her own child should have the same importance as a woman’s right to choose whether or not to remain pregnant. (There are systems in place designed to keep children out of abusive and neglectful families.) This takes us into privilege and class issues because adoption is also about how society picks and chooses which women have the right to be mothers and which women don’t qualify. This is well documented in several books including three of my favourites: Anne Petrie’s Gone to an Aunt's: Remembering Canada's Homes for Unwed Mothers, Ann Fessler ’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade and Rickie Solinger’s Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade.
Thankfully there have been significant gains made since 1968 thanks to hard-won battles forged by feminists. Abortion is legal and accessible to most Western women (although as we are all too aware, rights are continually being eroded in the United States and accessibility continues to be a problem in some areas of Canada), birth control and the morning-after pill is widely accessible; societal attitudes have changed toward single moms and there are at least some supports available to them. The number of young woman placing their babies for adoption has decreased significantly and the majority of domestic adoptions that do take place allow some degree of openness. What remains the same is the lack of adequate supports for single moms and indeed for all low-income and working families.
Here’s a thought: let’s take better care of the children we do bring into the world by providing their parents with equal opportunity, subsidized child care and after-school programs, affordable housing, and equal pay for women!
49th Shelf: As you note in Shameless, your experiences with adoption do not conflict with your politics as a pro-choice woman. How do you reconcile these ideas?
MC: The decision to terminate a pregnancy for many women can be a difficult one but it has to be her decision. I will repeat what I wrote in my book. I know that there are those who will say that it is wrong for me to support abortion because if I had terminated my pregnancy, the son whom I love so much would not have been born. That fact is indisputable. I chose to have my baby in 1968 for a number of complicated reasons. Once that decision was made, a whole different constellation of issues and emotions arose. Women from all walks of life make the decision to terminate pregnancies for all kinds of reasons. And some women still choose to carry a baby to term and place it for adoption if keeping it isn’t a viable option. It remains an individual choice no matter what the circumstances.
I believe we are all here by chance—if my father hadn’t tripped over my mother's feet in a friend’s kitchen, I wouldn’t exist, nor would my daughter and so on. As things turned out my son is here and I am very glad he is. But I will always support a woman’s absolute right to choose what happens to her own body and to be able to determine her own fate.
49th Shelf: As the previous question suggests, you’re writing about complex ideas (real life!) that do not fit neatly on a political spectrum. You write about finding unlikely foes and allies in your battle for adoption reform in Ontario, opposition coming from people you’d worked with and respected. Was this common in your experience as a politician, or was there something particular about this issue?
MC: Opening up records to adult adoptees and biological parents was not as complex as it appeared. It was about righting a historic wrong that caused monumental harm to many people. Similar legislation had been successfully implemented in a plethora of other jurisdictions world wide, including Canada. But because the whole discussion was fraught with emotion and irrationality the idea was often misunderstood and misinterpreted.
Overall it wasn’t really a partisan issue. The debate was driven by personal stories involving the primal stuff of life—sex, love, secrets, lies, shame, privacy, morality, and fear. I became a bit of a mother confessor during my ten years fighting for adoptions disclosure reform and I heard a lot of secrets from colleagues on all sides of the legislature. That’s what made this issue different from most other issues that fitted more neatly into party policy. The minority opposed to opening up the records were wildly passionate and very committed to stopping legislation from going forward and I think many of them were driven by their own secrets.
"The debate was driven by personal stories involving the primal stuff of life—sex, love, secrets, lies, shame, privacy, morality, and fear.""
There were people who shared my values who did not support the legislation and worked against it. They were supportive of adoption disclosure reform but were concerned about privacy issues. They were devastatingly influential and persuasive and they had an impact. A contact veto was already in place and we felt that was more than adequate to deal with those concerns. However, they wanted a disclosure veto in the legislation and went to court to get it. At the end of the day, they won their case and a new government bill was passed which included a disclosure veto. The direct result is the continued discrimination against a small minority of adoptees and biological parents who are blocked form getting their information.
49th Shelf: “Democracy in action!” you write, sarcastically, when the Ontario government was prorogued (again) in 2003 and your legislation was (again) lost, even though it was by then supported by more than 75 percent of MPPs. A reader comes away from your book with a tremendous sense that politics is inefficient, and that surely there is a better way to deal with these issues that are far from abstract and have a huge impact on people’s lives. What ideas do you have about how governments can work better?
MC: Private members bills are notoriously difficult to get passed, especially if they are controversial and do not have the backing of the government. The good news is that even though it took a long time, we incrementally built support and understanding in the legislature and in the public sphere every time I introduced a new bill. Despite loud and vitriolic opposition, in 2005, the Liberal government of the day chose to introduce government legislation. So, even though it was frustrating and at times infuriating, democracy worked in the end.
However, it is pretty obvious that the way we do politics in Canada can be improved. There are various forms of Proportional Representation (PR) systems of government in large parts of the world that require more cooperation between all elected parties. I worked on this issue as an MPP and with Equal Voice to promote PR in Ontario. There are dedicated groups of people such as Equal Voice and Fair Vote Canada promoting the idea.
49th Shelf: For me, the most poignant part of your book is your acknowledgement that while you’d spent years imagining that a reunion would ease the sadness you’d felt at having lost your son, it didn’t entirely. That while you have a good relationship with your now-adult son, you’ll never get your baby back. What advice do you have for other women who are beginning to come to this understanding? How do you ease the heartache?
MC: Certainly, allowing information disclosure has helped in that it gives mothers (and some fathers) a better likelihood of finding out what happened to their children and in many cases leading to reunion. I am one of the lucky ones. I found my son; he was happy to be found and is now part of the fabric of my life. I have a great relationship with his adoptive parents and we share in our grandson’s life. In doing so we have found there is plenty of love to go around. That has helped ease my heartache.
Of course not everyone has such a happy ending. But by being able to finally have our voices heard and the acknowledgement of the pain we suffered, and continue to suffer, helps tremendously. Loss and grief are a part of life and we can’t undo what’s been done. But we can’t wallow in it either and most of us don’t. It helps to talk to people who understand. There are fantastic support groups for adoptees and biological parents run by experienced compassionate people from the adoption triangle that have been through their own disappointments and triumphs. I have attended the Adoption Support Kinship (ASK) in Toronto and it was a great experience. ASK holds monthly meetings and assists with search and reunion as well as the emotional issues related to adoption. Check them out at http://askaboutreunion.org/
Marilyn Churley is a former Toronto City Councillor and former Member of Provincial Parliament. She has served as the Deputy Leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party and was the Ontario Legislature’s first female Deputy Speaker. She has been referred to as the mother of adoption disclosure reform in Ontario.
The Fight for Adoption Disclosure and the Search for My Son
In the late 1960s, at the age of eighteen and living far from home amidst the thriving counterculture of Ottawa, Marilyn Churley got pregnant. Like thousands of other women of the time she kept the event a secret. Faced with few options, she gave the baby up for adoption.
Over twenty years later, as the Ontario NDP government’s minister responsib …