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.