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Forced Adoptions: Why The Government Must Apologise

Forced adoption

2021: launch of the committee investigating forced adoptions 

In May 2021, the BBC published an article stating that The Joint Committee on Human Rights in Parliament would hear from mothers who said they were forced into giving up their babies at birth because they were unmarried between the 1950s and 1970s. 

The committee was set up following a BBC report which claimed that forced adoptions had affected around 250,000 women. The call from hundreds of affected women for the government to apologise follows the precedent of the Australian government which apologised for forced adoptions in 2013 and was the first country to do so. 

The lawyers examining the birth mothers’ cases focused on the period between 1945 and 1975 when an estimated 500 000 babies were adopted in Britain. The 1975 and 1989 Children Acts and the 1976 Adoption Act made it easier for adopted children and their birth mothers to regain contact with each other.

The experience of former MP Ann Keen 

In May last year, former MP Ann Keen for Brentford and Isleworth spoke to the BBC about her own experience of forced adoption when she gave birth at seventeen. “At first they were not going to even let me see him”, she explains. After pleading, Ann was told by a midwife “who looked kind” that she could keep the baby for ten days before adoption. 

However, Ann explains how “on the eighth day, I went to the nursery, and he wasn’t there.” When Ann asked the nurse what happened, she responded “oh, he has gone now”, adding that “you were getting far too close”, and that “you will never see him again”. 

At the end of her interview, Ann stated that “I want my name cleared, we want our names cleared, they write we ‘gave him up’,  ‘she gave her baby up’ – I didn’t, I didn’t.” 

The findings of the committee report on forced adoption 

A BBC article published today highlights the findings of the Inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The report details how 185,000 unmarried women were forced to give up their babies for adoption between the 1950s and 1970s. 

The inquiry report states that many women were “shamed” and “coerced” into giving up their babies, stating that the women were subjected to “cruelty”, “abuse” and “pressure” with the purpose of handing their babies over for adoption. What many of the affected mothers want from the government is to make an apology for their trauma, and the significant role that government-funded adoption agencies and hospitals had to play in it. 

The experiences of Judy Baker

The report that gathered evidence from around 300 people, mostly adopted children and birth mothers, stated that the mothers were “considered to have transgressed” and had to be punished. Many witnesses spoke of the “shame” and “secrecy” that surrounded their pregnancy, including Judy Baker. 

Baker, who was 18 when she gave birth in 1867 said that she “never got to say goodbye” to her baby. “I was just told I would get on with my life. It was as if it never happened”, adding that “I had to wait 32 years before I could say ‘hello’ again.”

However, Baker told the commission that an apology is “never, ever too late… Sorry is so important and all of us out there are still living with the trauma and the pain that this has caused us”. 

The response of MP Harriet Harman 

Chair of the committee, Labour MP Harriet Harman, stated that the affected women have “suffered from shame and vilification and the burden of secrecy for decades”, and that “the least the government can do is recognise that this shouldn’t have happened then and it would never happen now, and it’s right for the government to apologise.”

The response of the government 

Responding to the committee’s conclusions, the government said: “We have the deepest sympathy to all those affected by historic forced adoption. While we cannot undo the past, we have strengthened our legislation and practice to be built on empathy, from NHS maternity services caring for vulnerable women and babies, to our work transforming the adoption process and care system to help children settle into stable homes.” 

Final thoughts

It is difficult to see why the government cannot just apologise. Thousands of women who have lived with trauma from a very young age have made a simple request that will help them to heal the wounds of the past. It is now time for the UK government to follow the examples of Ireland and Australia by playing an important part in bringing justice to the mothers who have been deprived of it for so long.

Yet the committee’s report also highlights how far the rights of mothers have come in a relatively short amount of time. While we still have a way to go, with the committee calling for the provision of better counselling services for birth mothers and adopted people and improved access to birth and medical records, we can be thankful for how far we have come. 

The report which focuses on the traumatic experiences of mothers and children in very recent history shows how important it is to be aware of the suffering that so many faced at the hands of powerful institutions that should have known better. 

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