Forced adoptions: an appalling vista?

Mother and Baby Homes Commission very reluctant to draw conclusion that mothers were forced to give up their children

In 1979 the British judge, Lord Denning, coined the phrase ‘appalling vista’ to justify refusing the appeal of six Irishmen convicted for the Birmingham pub bombing. To set them free, he said, would mean ‘the police are guilty of perjury, that they are guilty of violence and threats, that the confessions were invented and the convictions erroneous.’

This, Denning went on, ‘is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say it cannot be right…’

Six innocent men spent 12 more years in jail before the British state was forced to acknowledge that Denning’s appalling vista was nothing more than the shameful truth.

It would be troubling indeed if something of an ‘appalling vista’ mentality was at play when the question of forced adoptions is posed in Ireland.

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Former residents and advocacy groups had raised the issue before the recent Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, claiming Ireland’s former adoption regime should be recognised as ‘forced’.

The investigation, however, has recommended that ‘the term adoption should not be revised to portray that all, or even most, adoptions were forced or illegal’ because ‘great care needs to be taken’ that adoptive families, whose motives were virtuous, ‘are not denigrated in any way’.

Is there a hint of Denning here: avoiding something that might be true because of unacceptable consequences?

Anyway, rejecting the term ‘forced’ because it might upset adoptive families seems something of a ‘straw man’ argument: no-one, surely, is going to blame or stigmatise these innocent parties for the misdeeds of others.

In fairness, the Commission had a little more to say on forced adoptions, but before coming to that, let’s apply Lord Denning’s reasoning to the Irish case.

Had he been asked, he might have argued that describing Irish adoptions as forced could mean that those who obtained the natural mother’s consent applied pressure, or failed to inform her of her rights, or failed to ensure she understood the implications of her decisions, or made her sign documents without revealing their contents, or, heaven forbid, even forged her signature.

He might have warned, too, against the implication that official Ireland failed repeatedly to ask in what circumstances ‘consent’ was obtained, or that some women were never told there were benefits that might have helped them keep their babies.

All of this indeed would be an appalling vista. Yet this is precisely what has been laid bare in the Mother and Baby Home Investigation. It heard evidence that all of the above - and more - played a part in the Irish adoption system. In the report’s own words:

‘Some witnesses told the Commission that they regarded their consents as free and informed… Others said their decision was informed but…not free as they had no real choice… A number of women said that they…had been ‘forced’ to [SIGN]by, for example, parents, adoption societies, mother and baby home staff, social workers or priests… Some stated adamantly that they had not actually signed… A few said that they had subsequently seen the forms in the adoption society files and…the signatures were not theirs.’

The Central Council of Irish Adoption Agencies - the horse’s mouth so to speak - told the Commission that ‘considering that the mother was virtually incarcerated in the Home, the question of her consent being “full, free and informed” was rendered moot.’

The Commission report quotes one young woman who brought her baby home after giving birth. ‘The parish priest put pressure on her to give the baby up for adoption, warning her that “no bastard child will enter my school”. Subsequently some women carrying documents arrived at her home - she had no idea who they were. They gave her no choice she said but forced her to sign the documents.’ Her baby was taken and no-one told her where it went.

Another woman told the Commission: ‘For me an over-riding feeling of the whole thing is there was no support there for me at the time... There was no option available to me other than adoption... Therefore I just felt completely overwhelmed as a young person, and pressured into the baby being adopted... I was railroaded into signing these documents.’

Even when the Unmarried Mother’s Allowance was introduced in 1973, many women weren’t told they could avail of it. As the report states, ‘They claimed that, had they been so aware, they might have made the decision to keep the baby.’

Lord Denning would be tearing his hair out as evidence for an appalling vista of forced adoptions mounted.

But the Mother and Baby Home Commission avoided that conclusion.

In dismissing the argument, the Commission says it ‘found very little evidence that children were forcibly taken from their mothers’. It doesn’t define ‘forcibly’, but the addition of ‘taken’ strongly suggests it had only physical force in mind.

But this is another ‘straw man’ as very few mothers have ever alleged anything of this nature.

In fact, ‘forcibly’ has many synonyms: ‘pressure’, ‘coercion’, ‘under protest’ and ‘of necessity’ are a few, and although all of them seem apposite to the Irish experience, ‘of necessity’ - the absence of choice - is perhaps the most problematic. Is being denied a choice the same as being forced?

There can be ‘little doubt’, the report acknowledges, that unmarried mothers ‘had to make decisions which did not necessarily reflect what they wanted but reflected the fact that they had little or no choice’, but the absence of choice, it concludes ‘is not the same as ‘forced’ adoption’.

At no point, apart from the reference to ‘forcibly taken’, does the Commission say what would constitute a forced adoption, but we know it consulted a report on the issue from a highly regarded committee of the Australian Senate.

The 2012 Australian report states: ‘’The committee believes it to be incontrovertible that forced adoption was common. It occurred when children were given up for adoption because their parents, particularly their mothers, were forced to relinquish them or faced circumstances in which they were left with no other choice.’

It went on, ‘There were many different ways in which forced adoption occurred… from experiences of being physically shackled to beds, to social workers failing to advise mothers of government payments that may have been available to support them to keep their child.’

Many Australian women told the inquiry, ‘they were not told about their rights to revoke adoption consent. They said they were pressured to sign adoption papers… In some cases documents are said to have been forged.’

How very familiar much of this will sound to anyone reading evidence given to the Mother and Baby Home Commission, yet its report states that in Ireland, ‘the Commission has not come across the sort of practices… that were outlined in the Australian [report].’

This is a truly puzzling verdict, given that both reports outline a great many features that were common to both jurisdictions, including practices - like the denial of alternatives - that in Australia did amount to forced adoptions. Physical force, although much more frequent in Australia, was never an essential feature.

Former residents of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes have argued that the denial of alternatives to adoption is an issue that wasn’t adequately dealt with in the Commission’s report.

The Catholic Church, they point out, believed that only ‘inadequate’ and ‘sinful’ women wanted to keep their babies. A misogynistic Church had weaponised illegitimacy, turning it from something that had been frowned upon historically, into a brutal mechanism for oppressing women. If society at large went along with this, that showed just how powerful the Church was.

Separating the child from its mother was part of her punishment as a sinner, while the pain of separation was a deterrent from sinning again. If unmarried mothers were encouraged to keep their babies, why should they repent? Why would they stop sinning? The Church had a right and a duty to separate them.

The State subsidised the Church’s adoption operations, but before 1973 provided no services whatsoever to women who wanted to keep their babies. Even after that, opinion makers argued it was better for a baby to be adopted than brought up by an unmarried mother, regardless of her means.

All of this explains why Ireland once had the highest rate of adoptions in the world: up to 97 per cent of all ‘illegitimate’ births. That only three unmarried women in every hundred managed to keep their babies, proved that those intent on separating them, by whatever means, were fully in control.

When the absence of choice is seen for what it was - part of this deliberate policy of separation - then the widespread occurrence of forced adoptions in Ireland is much harder to deny.

The Australian government faced up to its appalling vista and dealt with it. It would be sad indeed if a fear of the consequences of doing likewise here meant the truth would continue to be denied.

Mike Milotte is the author of Banished Babies: the secret history of Ireland’s secret baby export business