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Re-writing Australia’s history of forced adoption

A long-awaited Senate Committee report will tomorrow reveal whether the Commonwealth’s policies and practices played a role in coercing young, unwed Australian women to give up their newborn babies for…

The victims of forced adoption want an apology from the Commonwealth government. Nikkirk

A long-awaited Senate Committee report will tomorrow reveal whether the Commonwealth’s policies and practices played a role in coercing young, unwed Australian women to give up their newborn babies for adoption.

The practice, known more recently as forced adoption, was reportedly common in Australia between the 1950s and 1980s, with authorities failing to gain free and informed consent from thousands of young, unwed mothers before their newborns were removed.

The Senate Inquiry received hundreds of submissions, including many personal accounts of coercion, trauma and ongoing mental health problems associated with forced adoption.

Long and painful history

Legally, adoption was a confidential, irrevocable process where “unwanted” babies were placed predominantly with childless couples, relieving the state of the burden of their care. Close to 200,000 children have been adopted since the first Australian legislation facilitating adoption was enacted in 1896.

By mid-20th century, adoption was increasingly seen as western society’s answer to several emerging social problems – illegitimate children, single motherhood and infertility.

From the 1950s, babies of unmarried women were labelled illegitimate and, as such, the women were deemed “unfit” to mother. These young women could best serve society and themselves, they were told, if they relinquished their child for adoption. Then they could “get on” with their lives.

It seems that religious and welfare bodies agreed that the solution to illegitimate babies was adoption by a married woman who was “fit” to mother. From the 1950s to the 1970s, these organisations established homes across Australian to support and protect young, single pregnant women. But many of these women now have revealed the suffering they experienced at the hands of these institutions.

In many cases, the signed legal paperwork appears to show the birth mother’s consent for adoption. However, it’s common for women whose children were lost to them through closed adoptions between the 1940s and 1980s to recount traumatic stories of immense emotional pressure and coercion to sign.

Birth mothers were silenced when it came to speaking out about their hidden pregnancies, their treatment during the birth – which was frightening and traumatic – and their grief after losing their child. Their pain was seen as punishment for their immorality because of falling pregnant.

‘Illegitimate’ children were adopted by wedded or widowed women who were deemed ‘fit’ to mother. Junoic

Many of the women were young, vulnerable and experiencing personal crises. They were not informed of any legal rights to keep the child, and were made to feel inadequate, immoral and undeserving when it came to raising their own babies. Birth fathers were generally disregarded and blamed for corrupting innocent girls.

In some cases, single mothers may have been deliberately denied access to counselling services prior to giving consent. Adoption was upheld as the only option for these women because of a lack of financial and other support, and the stigma associated with illegitimacy and motherhood out of wedlock.

Adoptive parents were encouraged to raise the child as if it was born to them. The family was legally complete when the adoptive parents were named on birth certificates as the parents to whom the child was born.

Many adoptees say they experienced positive family relationships with their adoptive families. But many others have reported severe emotional disturbances and significant feelings of loss.

For adopted people, the grief associated with “not knowing who they are” is common and relates to the loss of identity, the loss of information about their origins, the loss of both birth parents, and for many, including Indigenous children, a loss of their culture of origin.

Research shows a high incidence of grief among birth mothers after the loss of their baby to adoption, and these feelings often intensify over time. Some of the women who experienced this grief following forced adoption practices in in Australia told their stories in the Four Corner’s documentary, Given or Taken, which screened last night on ABC1.

The Commonwealth’s role

Submissions to the Inquiry suggest the Commonwealth government has a case to answer in supporting forced adoption. This is based on the denial of the same financial support to unwed mothers that was available to other women who were widows, deserted wives and divorcees.

This was the case until the early days of the Labor Whitlam Government, when a universal single mothers' benefit was introduced to support all mothers in need, including unmarried women.

By withholding financial support until the 1970s, the submissions argue, the Commonwealth can be seen as condoning forced adoptions and contributing to the coercive policies and practices of state welfare, church and charity organisations.

Equally, up until the 1970s, reliable birth control was difficult to access and was disallowed by some religious groups. Termination of pregnancy was illegal under Commonwealth and state legislation. So while state legislation governed adoptions, some submissions to the Inquiry argued that the Commonwealth’s public and social policies endorsed a moral stance that enforced marriage or adoption to secure care for children.

Time for an apology?

Many submissions to the Inquiry argue the Commonwealth should play a leadership role in helping to heal the wounds of past wrongs in forced adoption. This would include publicly acknowledging the many stories of distress, trauma and violations of mother-child relationships as a result of forced, coerced, or unethical adoptions. Compensation could then be sought for the resulting trauma.

Evidence has been submitted to the Inquiry that some professionals involved in past adoptions might have acted unprofessionally, inappropriately, unethically and without informed consent to facilitate the adoption of children. While not wanting to find scapegoats for past wrongs, these actions should be acknowledged in an apology.

But not all those involved want an apology. Many just want the truth to be heard, acknowledged and accepted.

More practically, the Inquiry is likely to recommend a nationally funded framework of counselling, specifically tailored to support the well-being of those affected by forced adoption. This would be developed in consultation with the key stakeholders – birth parents, their extended families and adopted people – to provide ongoing emotional support.

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7 Comments sorted by

  1. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Another apology- please no. It was what was thought best then. Times have changed.
    Should doctors apologise because at that time they though white bread was good for diverticulitis or stomach ulcers were caused by stress?
    Effort would be better spent trying to help unmarried mothers in some moslem countries where it is not unusual for them to be killed.

    1. Ingrid Hunter

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      There is a huge difference between medical error due to lack of information, and treating people in such a way that shows lack of respect. These women had a right to choose what to do about their children. They were denied agency — and they deserve an apology.

      And it is possible to worry about the plight of others outside of Australia as well as the emotional distress of victims of trauma. (Much like people donate to more than one charity, really.)

  2. Ivan K

    logged in via Twitter

    The submissions to the enquiry and the 4 Corners documentary seem to demonstrate pretty clearly that many young mothers were coerced to give up their babies. The fact that many of them have suffered as a result of this treatment ought to be acknowledged.

    However I wonder whether those evaluating these past wrongdoings make enough of an effort to place the actions within their historical context. For a start, we are a much more affluent society now than we were in the 1960s; there is simply more…

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  3. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    The prejudgement of whether a mother was "suitable" or not was not excusable at the time. It is worse still to make that judgement in retrospect.

    Many teenage mothers of the 1950s lived with their families that would have accepted the child as their own. That was certainly not all families but it does appear that no effort was made to determine individual circumstances.

    Forgiveness is simply indulgence in absence of contrition. An apology is in order.

  4. Cedar Bradley

    logged in via Facebook

    I would like to comment that this otherwise well-written article unfortunately contains a serious flaw which undermines its message. Perhaps unintentionally, this article can be seen as perpetuating the same objectification of mothers which led to the mass-scale exploitation they experienced.

    Once a social/legal system can objectify/designate/define a person (or a class of people, such as unwed mothers) as being "less than human," once one can reduce their value to being nothing more than a…

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  5. Mark Carter

    logged in via Facebook

    If the proposal were to seek an apology and compensation from the individuals actually responsible for these horrible acts at the time then I'd back it all the way, but this focus on the modern institution of the Commonwealth as the source of resolution is ridiculous. What is actually being demanded is that the public of today are blamed and pay for the sins of others- sorry but collective punishment is not justice.

  6. Arthur Trafford


    Forced adoption, forced abortion or forced to keep the baby are case scenarios that are completely avoidable. But you can look for a positive reason to embrace any of these 3 options after pregnancy. When I am primarily motivated by lust and I have no real love or commitment to another person (much less any conceived child);
    my choice options will be painful and hurt me spiritually, emotionally and physically, because all 3 options are forms of “Damage control” to rescue me from my bad choices in life; so that I can hide from the naked reality that my life choices permanently hurt me and others!!!
    Ask God and the person you mated with to forgive you, forgive yourself and live the abundant life, free from lust. Meet your own sexual needs and stop defrauding others while single; and after you commit to love another person, then you can enjoy sex and children with no fear or regret of your circumstances.