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The institutionalized theft of babies from unwed mothers-to-be began in the aftermath of WWII, when it was considered the ideal solution to two pressing social issues: married couples unable to conceive, and the unpalatable number of single women giving birth to “illegitimate” babies.
Within minutes of giving birth in 1969 at the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Sydney, Christine Cole’s newborn daughter was taken away from her by staff.
“I was pushed back onto the bed by three nurses. The pillow was placed back on my chest and the midwife at the end of the bed said, ‘This has got nothing to do with you,'” recalls Cole, now a prominent human-rights activist and scholar.
In the days leading up to the birth, Cole—then aged 16—had been dosed with barbiturate drugs and other sedatives and then induced into labor. Afterwards, she was given milk-drying hormones and carted off to a facility miles from the hospital to prevent any contact with her newborn.
“I had not signed any adoption consent,” she says, “this was presuming that my baby was going to be taken for adoption, irrespective of what I wanted.”
The removal of Cole’s daughter was part of a record boom in the adoption industry in Australia at the time, which saw an up to an estimated 150,000 babies adopted between 1950 and 1985.
My baby was going to be taken for adoption, irrespective of what I wanted.
Tens of thousands of these adoptions are now believed to have been non-consensual, processed under a government policy of what has come to be known as “forced adoption”—one that victims and campaigners say was a human rights abuse.
Government inquiries and independent research by scholars like Cole have recently brought to light the experiences of hundreds of single or unwed mothers-to-be during this period, who recount being routinely drugged, lied to, emotionally and physically assaulted, and coerced by authorities.
Their stories paint a dystopian picture of ongoing violations administered by government agencies and the medical establishment in line with bigoted social attitudes of the time. Like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who over decades had their children removed by government agencies and church missions, many of these mothers consider their babies to be another “stolen generation.”
“To call it ‘forced adoption’ is really mislabeling what happened—this was an assimilation policy by the government that happened right across Australia,” says Cole, who has since completed a PhD on the subject.
“In our case we were considered inferior, second class, unfit to rear our own children because we were unmarried…. Being a single mother was purposefully pathologized.
“We were considered to have gotten pregnant because we were morally and mentally inferior—therefore, not mentally stable to bring up a child. This was full of hypocrisy because we were often farmed out [after the birth] to work as slave labour for married couples, where we were expected to clean their house and mind their children up to 80 hours a week.”
Australia’s institutionalized theft of babies began in the aftermath of the Second World War, when it was considered the ideal solution to two pressing social issues: married couples unable to conceive children of their own, and the unpalatable number of young, single women giving birth to so-called illegitimate children.
As is documented in court judgements and other official documents from the time, women such as these were considered “sexual deviants” who were “unpopular with the neighbours” and deemed “unfit” to parent. So they were denied any choice in the matter. Instead, the adoption of their babies became protocol within hospitals.
Accordingly, the child’s original birth certificate would be sealed immediately after birth and an amended one issued, establishing the child’s new identity.
These practices were also justified by social services through reference to popular psychology at the time—namely, “attachment theory” which held that a so-called clean break was best practice, with infants immediately removed from their mothers at birth. This would supposedly promote a favourable relationship between the baby and adoptive parents, while allowing single mothers to “get on with their lives.”
(In reality, however, new infants often languished in institutions for weeks or months—one Melbourne woman recounted being contacted more than two months after birth to request funding for the upkeep of her son, who had not been adopted due to disability.)
“The dehumanization of single mothers as a group allowed those working in the maternity wards to remove our baby at the birth without any empathy,” says Cole, noting that such brutal practices persisted for decades.
“In fact, some of [the maternity staff] would state that we did not attach to our babies like “normal” married mothers and therefore we were more like animals, without real feelings for our newborn.”
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