Forced adoption: mothers demand Government apology

A report published today from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights highlights the cruelty of forced adoptions in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Many women who were went through this, both as mothers or as the adopted children, are now calling for an apology from the Government.

You can download the latest report here: The Violation of Family Life: Adoption of Children of Unmarried Women 1949–1976

As Lib Dem Voice’s resident oldie, I can remember those days. I find it difficult to explain in these more liberal times that negative attitudes towards unmarried mothers ran right across society back then. As it happens, the Chair of the Committee is Harriet Harman, who was a near contemporary of mine at University, so she will also have recollections of life at the time.

The post-war years up until the mid 60s was a period of austerity, as the country recovered both economically and emotionally. Dramas set in that time often project today’s liberal values onto the period setting, assuming that people really were as sexually liberated as they are today but just hid it. I can assure you that was not the case. Not only was there a huge fear of getting pregnant without reliable contraception, but the opportunities for sex were limited for many young people, many of whom lived at home until they married. Couples simply didn’t live together, and girls were expected to be virgins at their weddings. There was huge shame associated with a pregnancy outside marriage.

If a young woman became pregnant she had three options – an illegal abortion, a so-called “shotgun” marriage or birth followed by adoption. Keeping the baby simply was not an option. I knew several girls who chose to have an abortion, got married straight away or whose babies were adopted, but I cannot remember anyone who kept their baby. It would have been impossible to live independently with a baby or young child as there were no benefits available, no jobs and no childcare.

As the report says

The experiences of the mothers and their children are at the centre of this inquiry. They did not, as is often said, give their children away. Unmarried women who found themselves pregnant during this period faced secrecy and shame from the earliest stages. Those who would have seized the chance to keep their sons and daughters with them and brought them up themselves did not have the opportunity to do so. Societal and familial pressures, and the absence of support contributed to thousands of children being taken from loving mothers and placed for adoption.

In the 70s I joined the committee of a local organisation called Kingston WelCare. It had recently changed its name from Kingston & District Moral Welfare Association and the name change signified a substantial shift in the work of the organisation. When it was founded in 1886, as a social arm of the Southwark Diocese of the Church of England, it provided care to young unmarried girls expecting babies. Without that intervention the girls, many of them in service, would have been out on the street.  Adoption was the only way that would allow the girls to avoid destitution.

By the time I got involved the work had changed dramatically. It was already offering accommodation and support to unsupported mothers who wanted to keep their babies, and it was looking for premises where it could offer a range of services to families, whether single parent or not.

It is never obvious whether societal attitudes follow changes in legislation or vice versa, although I think it happens both ways. In the late 60s and early 70s the hippie Free Love movement, which sexually liberated the young, followed widespread availability of contraception.  David Steel’s Abortion Act of 1967 offered a safe route to legal and free terminations, while some young women found it was possible to keep their babies.

Those affected by forced adoptions do deserve recognition that the values held by society at large at the time were uncaring and punitive, and resulted in real harm to the victims. An apology would formally embody that recognition. But who should give that apology since almost everyone was complicit?

The report says:

The Government has denied it was responsible for the treatment these women faced. However, public authorities were responsible for the way that their employees treated unmarried mothers. The Government is responsible for the conduct of employees of the State as well as, ultimately, for the conduct of employees of public bodies such as the NHS, who were involved in these practices in the course of their employment. The Government is also responsible for the policies and laws of the time, as well as the omissions of policy and law, that allowed these practices. The Government therefore bears responsibility for what happened to these mothers.

The Government of the time clearly shared some of the blame, but it does not lie solely with them.  However, the present Government can express the guilt and remorse on behalf of the whole of society in the form of an unconditional apology, and that is what it should do now.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Brad Barrows 15th Jul '22 - 2:39pm

    Interesting article that got me thinking back to when I was young. One thing I think interesting, now, is how many examples I can think of where single girls got pregnant but chose to either give birth and raise the child while continuing to live with her parents, or gave birth to a child who was then raised by the grandmother as if a sister of the mother. These examples were in the 1970s were abortion was a legal option but was seen by many as a more shameful way of dealing with an unplanned pregnancy than giving birth and raising the child as a single parent.

  • Heartbreaking, I well remember our next door neighbour in the early 80′ s whose child was taken for adoption, pretty much at birth, our neighbour was only 16 at the time. Every year on that child’s birthday she hid from the world, curtains pulled. The psychological impact of what happened was seemingly ignored by family’s, parents, friends and society as a whole, especially the Church and its congregation. These women deserve much more than an apology.

  • There was huge shame associated with a pregnancy outside marriage.
    Which the mother wore for life, whilst the father…

    Interestingly, in the 1980s, officially in Hertfordshire, there were no teenage pregnancies – the LEA didn’t collect the data, just a relatively large number of teenage girls being schooled outside of school. I know this because my mother was employed to teach groups of such girls, which she did at our home. I forget the wording used on her contract – I know it irritated her, suspect it was along the lines of “girls with womens issues that cannot be catered for in mainstream schools”.
    So I suspect there was a long-established culture of shame and brushing the matter under-the-carpet, in the hope it would go away.

  • @Roland – yes you are right. Pregnant girls were turfed out of school. Some were fortunate enough to get the kind of support and teaching that your mother provided, while others simply dropped out of education.
    I also remember that a single teacher at my own school was sacked when she became pregnant. (We all found out, of course)

  • So Mary it seems we’ve lifted the lid on another pandora’s box around the (past?) status of and attitudes towards women and children in our society, which would seem to indicate the apology for forced adoptions is just the beginning. At least things seem to be starting to move in the right direction.

    Decades later, I’m thankful for many of the things my mother did and involved her boys in; on being presented with a new baby I had some idea of what to do…

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