Crusade to find mother goes to human rights court

Abandoned at birth, a woman works to change a law giving French moms anonymity.

Since she was a teenager, Pascale Odièvre has had one dream: to find her mother. Adopted at age 2, she expected that tracing her origins would be a struggle. In fact, it turned out to be impossible.

Ms. Odièvre is among an estimated 400,000 people in France abandoned at birth by a mother who was granted permanent anonymity. Concealing identity – in sealed records – is permitted elsewhere. But no other European country has a law like France's that allows a mother to completely expunge her identity from medical and official records.

This month, after fruitless years of trying to persuade French courts to award her damages, Odièvre took her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The step sparked a huge national debate in France.

Dozens of groups want the law allowing anonymous births to be scrapped, saying people have a right to know where they came from. Defenders of the law are just as vocal. Catholic groups say any change would lead to an increase in abortions, and feminists insist maternal secrecy is a woman's right.

Sign here, with an "X"

In Strasbourg, Odièvre's lawyer, Didier Mendelsohn, argued that the law, passed by France's wartime Vichy government in 1941 to curb infanticide, runs counter to the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees "respect for private and family life."

"Everyone has the right to a private life, and knowledge of one's origins is an essential element of this," said Mr. Mendelsohn. "The convention also prohibits discrimination on grounds of birth [in Article 14], and my client is also being discriminated against."

The French birth certificate includes a dotted line for the mother's name. However, under the "sous X" or " under an X" law, as it's known, the mother has a right to place an X there, making the child a ward of the state and available for adoption.

After years of searching, Odièvre, who is now in her late 30s, has traced some records, and learned that her birth parents had two more babies, also "nés sous X" (born under an X).

Although there are no actual "X's" in her file, all the crucial information – such as the names – was crossed out with black ink and rendered indecipherable.

"My parents were very irresponsible to have three children and abandon them," says Odièvre. "I was angry at first, but I still want to find them. I feel like I can't build a future without knowing about my past."

A verdict from the court, made up of 17 judges from around Europe, is expected by the end of the year.

If Odièvre wins, France will come under pressure to amend the law and could be forced to pay her up to $75,000 in damages. Although she will still not have the information she wants, her lawyer hopes that one day it will no longer be illegal to try to remove the ink and read the names.

A conservative political mood

The French government's response to the case was to create an organization called the National Council for Access to Personal Origins (CNAOP), which centralizes all paperwork relating to anonymous births. The government also announced that the "sous X" law would gradually be phased out.

But since CNAOP's creation in January, the political mood in France has turned conservative. The CNAOP's president was replaced and it was made clear that the "sous X" law would not be scrapped.

Instead, mothers these days are simply encouraged to leave details of their identity in a sealed envelope. If the mother wants to unseal it later, she can.

Until the 1960s, an estimated 10,000 babies a year were born "sous X." Since the legalization of abortion in France in the 1970s, the number has fallen to about 550 a year.

A government survey shows that 80 percent of anonymous mothers are unmarried, and 50 percent are under the age of 23.

Italy and Luxembourg also allow anonymous births, but these children – once they reach a certain age – are allowed to trace their origins. In such cases, the mother is contacted by the social services and, if she agrees, the child can locate her.

Janice Peyre, a writer on adoption and a member of France's national organization "Adoptive Children and Families" which groups 92 adoption support networks, says her organization has not taken a stand on the issue because it is too complex.

"We feel that only a mother can decide if she wants to reveal her identity," she said. "But we need to protect the children and if the law disappears, babies could be left abandoned in the street."

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