Oscars 2014: Real-Life Philomena Ramps Up Adoption Rights Efforts

Philomena Lee inspired the role that won Judi Dench an Oscar nomination — and she's having a busy 2014

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Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call / Getty Images

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., right, and Philomena Lee, conduct a news conference on Jan. 30, 2014

If you’ve seen the Best Picture-nominated film Philomena, it will come as no surprise that the real woman who inspired the story is — in a word — determined.

In the film, Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, who was sent to an Abbey home for unwed mothers in 1950s Ireland. While there, her young son was adopted by an American couple against his birth mother’s wishes, and she was given no way of finding out where he had gone. Decades later, journalist Martin Sixsmith helped her track down what had happened to him.

But though the acclaimed movie came out last November (and the book Sixsmith wrote about the quest came out years ago), the real Philomena’s story is still evolving. That’s because Lee was not alone: Many other Irish women found themselves in similar situations but, unlike Lee, never managed to find the children who were taken from them.

(MORE: Mary Corliss reviews Philomena)

The movie version of Philomena will get its big verdict on Mar. 2, but its namesake has already had a busy few weeks. She launched the Philomena Project, an initiative to raise awareness and encourage the Irish government and Catholic Church to make adoption records public, on Jan. 24, and since then, she’s kept her issue in the headlines:

  • On Jan. 30, she met with Senator Claire McCaskill, who endorsed her cause, but she didn’t stop there: on Feb. 5, she received an audience with the Pope.
  • On Feb. 16, Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan (who also co-starred in the movie) won a BAFTA award for the screenplay; during the acceptance speech, Coogan gave a shout-out to the real woman who inspired the story.
  • Days later, Irish President Michael D. Higgins told Irish radio station Newstalk that sympathy for women in Lee’s situation is not enough; in cases where the state would have been able to provide information about adoptions but failed to do so, he said, they must “take responsibility.” On Friday, the Philomena Project issued a statement applauding Higgins for his desire to prevent the government from “attempting to airbrush out of history the scandal of Mother and Baby homes.”
  • The Adoption Rights Alliance, an organization working with the Philomena Project, observed a phenomenon they’re calling “the Philomena Effect”: a growing number of women approaching the campaign in hopes of locating their own lost children.
  • Last week, the Philomena Project emended their petition to address the Irish State, not just the Catholic Church, since the Church has turned over most the remaining records to the government, according to a spokesperson for the project. The petition has more than 12,000 signatories at this time.
  • Over the weekend, The Hollywood Reporter announced that the Feminist Majority Foundation would award Lee this year’s Eleanor Roosevelt Award in honor of her work helping other women find their lost children.

And the busy time isn’t over yet, though the last bit of big news isn’t quite as weighty as the inroads she’s making on adoption rights: Philomena Lee is planning to attend the Oscars ceremony.