France's children of X take adoption law battle to Europe

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Pascale Odièvre has never married, but she knows that her real name is not Odièvre. According to her birth certificate, her mother's name was "X".

Pascale Odièvre has never married, but she knows that her real name is not Odièvre. According to her birth certificate, her mother's name was "X".

Ms Odièvre, 37, is one of an estimated 400,000 people in France who are searching for origins that have been officially blanked out by the French state. Their mothers not only gave them up for adoption at birth, they took advantage of a 61-year-old French law which allows them to have a baby in complete anonymity.

Until the 1960s, an estimated 10,000 babies a year were "né sous X", or born to anonymous mothers. Since the legalisation of abortion in France in the 1970s, the number has fallen to about 560 a year. Mothers elsewhere are allowed to conceal their identity from their children, but no other country in the developed world allows a mother to expunge her identity from the medical and official records.

Last week Ms Odièvre took her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Her lawyer argued that the French law on birth "sous X", passed by the Vichy government in 1941, infringes the right to a private and family life, guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

"The knowledge of one's origins is an essential element in one's private life," said Maître Didier Mendelsohn. The judgment of the court will be announced next month, but all the indications are that the 17 judges from countries all over Europe took Ms Odièvre's complaint seriously.

Ms Odièvre was born in 1965 and adopted when she was almost three years old. She knows that her father was Spanish and had been living with her French mother for seven years. She knows that they already had a son and that they had two more babies – both boys – who were also "né sous X". She knows that her mother gave up the babies because her father said that they could not afford to keep any more children.

Beyond that, the French state refuses to help her – indeed it cannot, because there is no record of her mother's name. The authorities have even refused to help her try to trace her two younger brothers.

"Most of all, I want to find my brothers," she says. "My parents, at the start anyway, I didn't really want to look for them. I thought they were irresponsible, to have three children and abandon them. One, maybe, but three...?"

Now, Ms Odièvre says, she would like to know what happened to her mother, who she believes was also a "victim" of what happened. Most of all, she wants "to know what it is like to meet someone who is the same flesh and blood as you are". A law introduced in January allows mothers who have a baby in secret to place their name in a sealed envelope. They can then decide later in life if they wish to meet their child or not. But the option of having a baby in complete anonymity remains.

The "né sous X" issue has become an emotive debate, which cuts across the usual political and social battle lines. Feminist groups and Catholic family organisations both defend the law. The first say that it is an important woman's right. The second say that any change would lead to an increase in the number of abortions.