Philomena Lee wistfully described losing her son to adoption and her search for him 50 years later, a quest depicted in the Oscar-nominated film starring award-winning actress Judi Dench.
Her experience is a powerful argument for Ireland to open the adoption records for thousands more mothers whose children ended up in U.S. cities such as St. Louis, Philadelphia, Boston and New York, Sen. Claire McCaskill said Thursday after a meeting with Lee.
The two women, joined by Lee's daughter, Jane Libberton, spoke to reporters on Capitol Hill about the Philomena Project and its efforts to reconcile families. The movie has drawn attention to the adoptions, and so did Lee's riveting story. She recounted some of it.
Lee was an unwed, pregnant teenager in 1952 when her Irish Catholic family sent her to the Sean Ross Abbey in Rosecrea, Ireland. She worked seven days a week but was allowed only an hour a day with her son, Anthony. After three years, the boy was sold for adoption to a St. Louis family.
Lee said she kept her secret for 50 years, then with the help of her daughter and BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith, they sought to find him.
Unbeknownst to Lee, her son was trying to find her too.
"They wouldn't tell him anything at all," she said Thursday. "They told him I had abandoned him at 2 weeks old."
After several twists, Lee discovered the fate of her son, which is captured in the movie. "At least I found him," she said.
McCaskill said Ireland could do more to help other mothers and children reunite and signaled that the Congress would press the issue, either through a resolution or during Senate confirmation hearings for the next American ambassador to Ireland.
"The Irish government has not been as aggressive on this front as we would like," said McCaskill, who described her own blended family with adopted children. "They have not done what they need to do in terms of making this an easy process."
She argued that they should pass legislation to open the adoption records and ensure that any measure is retroactive.
In addition to McCaskill, Lee met with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., on her first trip to Washington.
Although the movie shows Lee traveling to Washington, her daughter said it was a bit of artistic license in filmmaking.
Lee has appeared on daytime television and has been invited to the Oscars on March 2, where the movie, Dench's performance, the original score and the adapted screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope are nominated.
"Eight weeks ago, I was a lonely, quiet housewife" living with her husband and family, Lee said. Since the movie's release and her involvement with the Philomena Project, she said she has been warmly welcomed in the United States and appreciates the outpouring of support.