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Empty adoptions' apology is based on half-truths

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Monday, 25 March 2013

With the political shenanigans over the federal Labor leadership overshadowing other news, I wonder how many people have bothered to read details of the National Apology for Forced Adoptions passed "on behalf of the Australian people"?

The apology had the support of both sides of Parliament, followed related apologies by some state governments, and was broadly praised in the media. Official apologies have become fashionable these days. The Catholic Church had previously apologised for "past adoption practices", and the Rudd Government had earlier apologised to both the Stolen Generations and to British child migrants.

Being of retirement age, I remember the era being talked about, and I know people directly affected by past adoption practices. While aspects of these past practices can validly be criticised, the extent of revisionism and the implied criticism of those administering past adoptions simply goes too far.


I have no problem condemning the forced removal of a child from a caring capable parent, especially if the removal verges on kidnapping. I do have a problem with apologies made in the name of all Australians, that are based on pious half-truths (or distortions of history), and wrapped up in no responsibility and continued legal absolution for those apologising.

The most recent apology process appears to involve widespread misinformation or amnesia concerning the numbers that were actually "forced", the motives of those now alleged to have acted improperly, and the social conditions and values of the time.

That well known sponsor of political correctness, the ABC (see, claimed that "it is believed at least 150,000 Australian women had their babies taken against their will by some churches and adoption agencies between the 1950s and 1970s". The figure of "at least 150,000 forced adoptions" has been regularly quoted by other complainants.

Available statistics indicate that total adoptions peaked at just under 10,000 per annum in Australia during the early 1970s, and for most of these decades the number was much less (see It is thus clear that we are asked to believe that nearly all adoptions from the 1950s to the 1970s were forced, based on misguided ideas, and not in the best interests of the child.

To quote the official apology:

  • The Parliament ... apologises for policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies.
  • The mothers were betrayed by a system that gave no choice.
  • We say sorry 'to each of you that were adopted or removed, who were led to believe your mother had rejected you'.
  • We don't like to admit we were mistaken or misguided.
  • What we see in the mirror is deeply shameful and distressing.
  • This story had its beginnings in a wrongful belief that women could be separated from their babies and that it would all be for the best.

The historical reality is that, in the era referred to, across much of the developed world (not just Australia) having a child out of wedlock was widely regarded as a symptom of "loose morals" and acutely shameful (though we now know that "bad girls" are not always the ones to get pregnant). Pregnant single girls in those days generally received limited family support and often were sent away prior to giving birth. The resultant babies, if they remained un-adopted, were tainted as "illegitimate" or "bastards", terms that had very particular legal and insulting meanings back then.

There were no single parent pensions in those days, child care centres were rare, and abortion was generally illegal and regarded as immoral. Consequently, most single mothers faced a virtually impossible task in raising a child on their own (most likely in poverty). Instead they had two main options: a "shotgun" wedding (boyfriend permitting) or adoption. Where the former was not an option, in most (but not all) cases, the mother, for months prior to giving birth, would have been anticipating an eventual adoption process.

I dispute the assumption in the official apology that relinquishing mothers were regarded by the community as having rejected their adopted child. There was a deliberate policy in many cases of preventing the bonding of an unmarried mother with her newly born child in order to avoid increasing the subsequent pain following adoption. The relinquishing mother, in placing her child for adoption, was not rejecting her child but instead was generally regarded as doing what she could to give her child a better chance in life. Adoptions closely following birth were also generally considered better for the child than adoption later in life.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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