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Winchmore Hill resident Jean Robertson-Molloy was a founding member of MAA - the Movement for an Adoption Apology.  Here she explains why she and others are campaigning for the British government to issue a formal apology for the wrong done to some half a million young women who were coerced to give up their "illegitimate" babies for adoption because of a policy that was in force right up until the 1970s, or even later.

jean robertson molloy

Jean Robertson-Molloy: "It seemed we had no choice but to opt for adoption"

I am happy to report that a campaign which has been running since 2010, in which I was one of the co-founders, is at last beginning to show some results.  A motion was put to the House of Commons on 12th January seeking a government apology for past Adoption Practices, ie the forced adoptions which occurred so often in the years from, mainly, the fifties up till the seventies and even later.

The swinging sixties were not so swinging for those who got caught

Why were there so many adoptions then?  In post-war Britain the changing sexual mores meant that more and more people were taking risks. These were often fairly inconsequential for men but decidedly dangerous for women. Even after reliable contraception, in the shape of the contraceptive pill, at last became available in the late 1960s, unmarried women found it difficult to get access to it.  At about the same time abortion was finally legalised in the UK, but again access to it was not always easy, and could be very costly.

So the swinging sixties were not so swinging for those who got caught.  By 1992 the book Half a Million Women by  Howe, Sawbridge and Hinings estimated that half a million women in the UK had lost a child to adoption simply because of becoming pregnant without being married.  At that time sexual mores may have changed, but illegitimacy (a word that has almost fallen out of use now) was still severely frowned on in most circles, and an unmarried woman was still deemed to be an unfit person to raise a child.

Women were coerced, either subtly or quite forcefully

In today’s world the idea of a woman giving up her child for adoption simply because she is not married seems unthinkable, even ridiculous perhaps.  But many women were coerced, either subtly or quite forcefully, into doing just that in the latter years of last century, especially from the 1950s till the 1970s, and even later. Indignant parents threw them out, and social workers withheld from women the information that they and their child had a right to support under the National Assistance Act of 1948.

Some of these women have been able to trace their children years later and have achieved a reunion of sorts, not necessarily a happy result after a life-time of separation.  The popularity of the programme Long Lost Family gives some indication of the many people, birth parents and adopted people, who have a deep interest in the idea of searching and reunions. But many women have been afraid to try and trace their children, fearful of being rejected.

"The right thing to do"

And of course all of us were told that the right thing to do was to forget all about it and carry on with the rest of our lives, keeping this birth a secret forever.  Forget nine months of carrying a child inside one’s body. How could anyone do that?  Some people did manage to repress this memory, but suffered serious breakdowns eventually, when, often at the menopause, the memories came flooding back. 

Yet another result of these losses was that many women were unable to have any more children, either for physical reasons, suffering secondary infertility, or indeed because, as women have told me, they felt so bad about what they had done that they decided they did not deserve to have another child.  Those of us who did have more children, and I am happy to count myself among that number, nevertheless have discovered that the early loss does still affect both them and their subsequent children.  The ripples move outwards, inevitably.

Not just in Ireland

In the past few years people have become aware of the dreadful practices in Ireland due to the showing here of the film Philomena, which rightly tugged at heart strings and opened many eyes to the attitudes of the churches towards illegitimacy.  Women were forced to live in Mother and Baby Homes, where they had to scrub floors, attend church services to remind them of their sins, and often were not even allowed to say goodbye to their babies before they were taken away.

What many people did not realise is that those practices didn’t just happen in Ireland but were replicated in many Mother and Baby Homes up and down the UK. The treatment of women in Ireland was not unfamiliar to women who had endured a similar system here, often organised by the churches, of course.

And for some of us, myself included, it appeared that if we did choose to try and keep the child, we would always be branded as unmarried mothers and our children consequently would suffer also.   So it seemed we had no choice but to opt for adoption.  And all the time we were reminded that it was important to keep all this a total secret, from family, friends, the world.  And so for many women this loss could not be spoken about and has been kept secret even up till the present day.

By the mid to late nineties women who had lost a child to adoption in this way began to join together to form a mutual support organisation, called Natural Parents Support Group, publishing a regular newsletter.  And out of this organisation, and its successor NPN (Natural Parents Network), developed a group called MAA -  Movement for an Adoption Apology.  In this group those who had suffered badly at the hands of authorities determined to seek an apology for the wrongs done to us by successive governments.  Consent papers for the adoption of our children were frequently conspicuous by their absence, and even when consents appeared to have been signed by the child’s mother, it was often only obtained under duress. 

Those who could not talk about it have suffered hugely

I count myself lucky in having found NPN early on.  My child was born in Australia in 1963 and I signed the adoption papers immediately, being assured by everyone that it was "the best thing".  I came home soon afterwards, telling my family a bundle of lies and trying to keep the whole thing secret.  But I was very fortunate in discovering NPSG, and then NPN, early on.  There I could meet and talk with other women like myself, and eventually I was able to talk about my situation to an increasing group of friends and family.  But those who could not talk about it have suffered hugely because they have not been able to express their grief.  Evelyn Robinson’s Adoption and Loss, the Hidden Grief is a brilliantly readable analysis of the disastrous effects on many women of bottling up these feelings.

In 2013 Jean Robertson-Molloy was interviewed by BBC News

So those of us supporting MAA have battled for years to get some recognition at government level of all that women have suffered because of these policies of the past. The MAA campaign, which was specifically to obtain an apology for past adoption practices, began in 2010, when we heard that the government of Western Australia had given an apology to the women and children in that state who had been forcibly adopted. Then each state apologised, culminating in a National Apology by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in March 2013.

Outright refusal

Here in the UK there have been many attempts to get those in power to listen, including a documentary film, commissioned by ITV and made by Ronachan Films , called Britain’s Adoption Scandal, shown in November 2016. This led to a legal firm becoming involved in our campaign.  Letters were sent to the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, and to the Minister for Children and Families, with supporting evidence, asking for a public Inquiry into past adoption practices.  All met with outright refusal.

A common refrain is that all these things happened in the past and that adoption procedures today are all fine (itself a highly debateable assertion) and arguing that those past wrongs can now be forgotten.  This is of course ignoring the whole point of our campaign, that women who suffered in the past are still affected, especially the many who still cannot talk about it. The light of day needs to be shed on those past adoption practices.

"This House recognises the pain and suffering"

Fortunately, we found an ally in Jonathan Ashworth MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Health, who suggested we seek support for a back bench debate.  Also one of our MAA members, Ann Keen, is a former MP and together with her friend Alison McGovern MP they worked on seeking a  debate. The application for a debate was eventually passed by the Back Bench Committee and, almost to our disbelief, we were told the debate would take place in due course, probably in the autumn.

In the event, it all happened more quickly than we expected, and on 12th July Alison McGovern, MP for Wirral South, rose to move:

"That this House recognises the pain and suffering that the historical practice of forced adoption caused many women and children; and calls on the Government to issue an apology to women and children affected by that practice."

The motion passed with no dissenters.

Looking for a good deal more than a mere apology

However, this is only the beginning of the story, not the end.  The Government Minister for Health, the newly appointed Nadhim Zahawi, made a fairly cautious speech in reply to the debate, and did not promise either an apology or an inquiry, but in the end did offer to meet with the debate’s proposers and with some of our campaign  group too.  We are, of course, looking for a good deal more than a mere apology, including publication of much information which has long been hidden, and also help for women with tracing, counselling and emotional support. 

The MAA campaign will be pressing on with these demands, all of which have already been granted some years ago in Australia. 

Australia has benefitted from having six local Parliaments, and also from two previous campaigns demanding Government apologies. One was about the removal of aboriginal children from their homes to be placed with white families, in an attempt amounting almost to genocide.  The other concerned  the scandal of children, supposedly orphans, being sent from Britain to what they were told would be a wonderfully happy world, full of "oranges and sunshine".  Whereas, as it eventually turned out, they were in many cases exploited and even abused in isolated areas where they were forced to work long hours in religious establishments. 

Vociferous in demanding their rights

After these two scandals broke, Australian women who had lost their children to adoption were vociferous in demanding their rights also.  And in other countries too, all of which had been part of the old British Empire, and so subject to much the same customs and attitudes, unmarried women who became pregnant experienced very similar treatment to their sisters in Britain.  However both Canada and, more recently, New Zealand are now achieving  success in their claims for redress. 

You can find the report of the Debate in Hansard, under the heading "Forced Adoptions" on 12th July.  The motion was seconded by our former MP Stephen Twigg and supported also by our current MP Bambos Charalambous.  In the heat of the moment, Bambos managed in his enthusiasm to confuse my story with someone else’s - but thank goodness he made some amends by explaining the true facts in a point of order the following Tuesday! 

The more names we get the stronger we will be

If you would like to support our campaign, please look at the Movement for an Adoption Apology website and sign our petition for an Apology. The more names we get the stronger we will be.  And do write also to your MP, whether Bambos or one of the other local MPs, and tell them why you want them to support us.  Thank you.

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