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Australian Senate Urges Country To Apologize Over Forced Adoptions

A Senate committee in Australia is asking the country to apologize for its past policy of forced adoptions.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, thousands of unwed mothers were coerced into giving up their children. The committee talked to hundreds of mothers since its inquiy started in 2010.

The AP reports that about 100 mothers who gave up babies sat in the Senate public gallery as the committee presented its report today.

"If it wasn't illegal, it was unethical," committee chairwoman Sen. Rachel Siewert said, according to the AP. "The evidence ... tells the accounts of mothers and fathers who were pressured into giving up their babies by their families, by institutions — both state and territory and private institutions — by social workers, doctors, nurses and those who they rightly expected to have helped them."

The BBC reports that many of organizations that took part in the forced adoptions have apologized, but the victims want the government to issue a formal apology of the kind it issued in 2008 to indigenous people, over the systematic suffering they had undergone.

The BBC adds:

The committee urged the government to issue a formal statement of apology that 'acknowledges, on behalf of the nation, the harm suffered by many parents whose children were forcibly removed and by the children who were separated from their parents"'

"In many cases, the parents were threatened with the law of the day," said Senator Claire Moore. "To the people caught up in the horror of this history, we can now call it a horror and not pretend it didn't happen."

The report is very long. But Chapter 3 in particular is worth reading through if you're interested in how this systematic abuse happened. Here are some of the testimonies we found in that chapter:

-- Many women were forced to live in "maternity homes" until their delivery. Once in the hospital, many of them described being tied to a bed. Here's how one woman described the experience:

"I first knew something was wrong when a pillow was placed over my face during the birth, so that I couldn't see the child during the birth."

-- Here's another woman describing what happened after she gave birth:

"I awoke three days later to find my breasts so tightly bound that I had trouble breathing. This procedure was done to suppress my milk production and I feared that my son had already been taken. My hysteria and distress was observed by another woman in the public ward and she called for a nurse. Consequently, my son was finally brought to me. He had lost a noticeable amount of body weight compared to the child presented to me in the labour ward—so much so that I hardly recognised him. He was screaming and clearly in distress."

-- The report says that babies were taken before women were even given an opportunity to sign away their rights. Here's one woman's testimony, who said she had no idea she was giving up her infant:

"When I had my child she was removed. All I saw was the top of her head—I knew she had black hair. I begged, I pleaded and I did everything—'Please can I see her.' 'No, you can't. She's marked for adoption.' Those were the words. I did not know what that meant at the time, but of course I do now."

-- The committee also spoke to some of the midwives of the time. They explained the practice of keeping the mothers from their babies:

"The reason that young unmarried girls (who were intending to have their child adopted) were not encouraged to see or care for their babies in hospital was out of kindness. It was considered to be an extra trauma for them, had they bonded with the baby, to have it taken from you a few days later."

-- Some women told the inquiry that another part of their hurt came from the fact that they were placed in wards with married women, who got to keep their babies:

"My baby was taken from my bedside and placed all alone in a nursery. I was forbidden to see him or go in the nursery. I was then left for several days sitting on a bed in a ward full of married mothers who were allowed to have their tiny babies next to their beds. They were able to hold their babies, cuddle them and feed them whilst I sat and watched and cried."

h/t: NPR's Kathy Rushlow for pointing out this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.