CANBERRA – Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a historic national apology in Parliament on Thursday to the thousands of unwed mothers who were forced by government policies to give up their babies for adoption over several decades.
More than 800 people, many of them in tears, heard the apology in the Great Hall of Parliament House and responded with a standing ovation.
“Today this Parliament, on behalf of the Australian people, takes responsibility and apologizes for the policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, which created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering,” Gillard said.
Gillard committed 5 million Australian dollars ($5 million) to support services for affected families and to help biological families reunite. She also committed AU$1.5 million to allow the National Archives to record people’s experiences through a special exhibition.
A national apology was recommended a year ago by a Senate committee that investigated the consequences of the policies.
Unwed mothers were pressured, deceived and threatened into giving up their babies from World War II until the early 1970s so they could be adopted by married couples, which was perceived to be in the children’s best interests, the Senate committee report found.
The seven-member committee began investigating the federal government’s role in forced adoption in 2010 after Western Australia’s Parliament apologized to mothers and children for the practices in that state from the 1940s until the 1980s. Western Australia was the first of five state and territory governments to apologize for forced adoption, out of the total of eight.
Roman Catholic hospitals in Australia apologized in 2011 for forcing unmarried mothers to give up babies for adoption and urged state governments to accept financial responsibility.
Adoption in Australia is mostly controlled by state laws, but the report found that the federal government had contributed to forced adoption by failing to provide unwed mothers with full welfare benefits to which a widow or deserted wife would have been entitled until 1973.
Among unwed mothers, adoption rates were as high as 60 percent in the late 1960s, the report said.
The committee could not estimate how many adoptions were forced but said as many as 225,000 babies were removed.Scores of mothers and children gave evidence at the Senate’s inquiry, which looked at the forcible removal of infants between 1951 and 1975 in Australia, then a conservative and predominantly Christian nation.
Babies were often signed away for adoption before they were born. The inquiry found that women were pressured to consent, signatures were sometimes fraudulently obtained and adoption was presented as inevitable.
Christine Cole, the head of the Apology Alliance, who lost a child through forced adoption, told ABC television the words were long overdue.
“I had my baby taken from me in 1969, and I think the use of the term ‘forced adoption’ polarizes the actual phenomena of what was going on,” she said.
“What was going on was kidnapping children, kidnapping newborn babies from their mothers at the birth, using pillows and sheets to cover their face, drugging them as I was drugged, with drugs like sodium pentothal, chloral hydrate and other mind-altering barbiturates,” she said.
“It was cruel, it was punitive and then often the mother was transported like I was away from the hospital so you had no access to your baby.”