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When resistance was futile

Victims of forced-adoption practices believe it is time for nurses to apologise for their actions in the scandal, writes Flynn Murphy.

Accusations of coercion, deception, bullying and even child theft have been levelled at the medical profession, amid intense scrutiny over the historical treatment of pregnant, unmarried women in Australia. 

Aired during a senate inquiry chaired by Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, and in the media, the claims span the period from after World War II into the 1980s. There have been formal apologies from hospitals, church groups, and even the West Australian Government.

The inquiry into the Commonwealth contribution to former forced adoption policies and practices received more than 400 submissions, and held public hearings in all but one of Australia’s capital cities. It has had its deadline extended twice, due to the sheer number of submissions and is due to report its findings this month.

Submissions to date paint a bleak picture of the role of hospitals and staff in convincing unmarried mothers to part with their children during the period. It is estimated at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne alone, more than a quarter of the 26,000 babies born to single mothers between 1945 and 1950 were given up for adoption. For nurses and midwives, it’s a complex and messy story – of resistance as well as complicity, and of a generational challenge to conservative ideas about the nuclear family.

To make sense of the history, Nursing Review spoke with the Australian Catholic University’s Professor Shurlee Swain, one of Australia’s forefront academics on adoption practices and the historical role of hospitals in forced adoption.

Swain says many practitioners of the time acted in good faith and were bound to a system that operated on the unchecked assumption that children born out of wedlock to single women were unwanted.

This fed directly into an attitude among medical practitioners and social workers that covering up for young, single mothers was the best thing for them.

“Nobody asked the mothers. The assumption by everybody was that when a single woman went to the hospital they wanted their baby adopted, even if they hadn’t said that. And the women I’ve spoken to who did not surrender their children had to fight considerably in order to get out of hospital with their baby,” she says.

“These single women really carried the burden of all the unease that society felt about women who were sexually active outside marriage. It was like they’d been ‘caught’, so to speak, and all this anxiety and anger got dumped on them, not just in hospitals but everywhere else,” Swain says.

But the researcher says she has heard many stories of resistance on the part of younger nurses and midwives, who tended to be less punitive about children born outside of marriage than their older colleagues, and “would do what they could within what was a very constrained environment”.

“Some of our best informants were very young women who were midwives in training, and they look back on this period with shock and say ‘we couldn’t believe this was happening, we couldn’t believe the distress of the mothers’.

“Some said that was why they didn’t end up going into midwifery, because they couldn’t bear to be a part of it.”

Swain says some nurses would secretly sneak mothers in to show them their babies, or take pictures for them, before they were separated for life.

“But we had reports of extremely punitive attitudes and comments [from older nurses] like ‘you’ve had your fun, and now you have to pay for it’.”

At the end of 2009, Swain was commissioned by Melbourne Women’s Hospital to write a report on the hospital’s adoption practices between 1945 and 1975, after it was approached by groups of mothers complaining about the circumstances in which they had surrendered their children.

The report, which took two years to produce, was released earlier this year and tended as a submission to the senate inquiry. Swain spoke to former staff across all roles: obstetrics, midwifery, social work, and also interviewed mothers who had their babies taken away, and a smaller number of women who had been able to fight to keep them.

Among other things, Swain found many of the women were completely unaware of their rights, and felt they were compelled to give up their children. As a result, the Royal Women’s Hospital issued an unreserved apology.

In a statement on behalf of the hospital’s past and present staff, chief executive Dale Fisher apologised to “every woman who felt she had no choice but to relinquish her baby for adoption while in [their] care”, and that she understood their “feelings of grief, pain, anger, helplessness and loss”.

But Swain’s study found no evidence of illegality on the part of the hospital and its staff.

“It wasn’t illegal in the sight of the law, because the law was designed to make this happen,” she says. “[Was it] unethical? Almost certainly.”

Coleen Clare, the manager of VANISH, a government-funded adoptive rights group based in central Melbourne with a membership of around 700 (including adopted people and their biological and adoptive parents), says the Federal Government and other groups should follow the example set by Royal Women’s.

While Clare acknowledges some nurses and midwives did the best they could within the organisational culture, she says “others did things that were not appropriate and sometimes quite cruel, and these would have been judged so in any milieu. We accept that the organisation culture was pervasive, but we also say that [nurses] were responsible for their own behaviour”.

In an interview with Nursing Review, Clare called on the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) to make a formal apology to relinquishing mothers.

“I think it would be very helpful. When you’re in hospital that very intimate relationship is with the nurse, and they are the ones that carry out the policies,” she says.

The ANF declined to comment on the senate inquiry or on the prospect of an apology.

Clare hopes the inquiry will lead to a federal government apology, and believes this will make it easier for other institutions to follow their lead.

“If the nation does it, sometimes it’s easier for other groups to say ‘whatever part we played, we regret’.”

Swain supports the call, saying for many relinquishing mothers, an apology means their children will know they weren’t necessarily “unwanted”.

“Some of the ones who carry the greatest pain are the women who have tried to have a reunion with their child and been refused. And sometimes, the now-adult child, in rejecting them, says ‘you didn’t want me then, I don’t want you now’.

“That’s one of the assumptions they want to contest. They want it on the record that they didn’t have a choice, and that adoption doesn’t mean rejection, and that they were prevented from keeping their children because of the policies and practices of the time.”

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