The government should formally apologise to unmarried women who were “railroaded” into unwanted adoptions between the 1950s and 1970s, MPs and peers have said. The Joint Committee on Human Rights said it acknowledges the “grave wrong” done to mothers and their children who “still live with the legacy of suffering”. An estimated 185,000 children were taken away from unmarried mothers and adopted between 1949 and 1976 in England and Wales. Women and girls who became pregnant outside of marriage were seen as having shamed themselves, and families and institutions such as schools and churches in many cases sent mothers away from their homes so their pregnancy could be hidden.
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In a new report, the committee said the government “bears ultimate responsibility for the pain and suffering caused by public institutions and state employees that railroaded mothers into unwanted adoptions”.
Committee chairwoman and Labour MP Harriet Harman said the bond between mothers and babies was “brutally ruptured” over the three decades and the adoptions “should not have happened”.
She said: “The mothers’ only ‘crime’ was to have become pregnant while unmarried. Their ‘sentence’ was a lifetime of secrecy and pain. “They were told they had ‘given’ their baby for adoption when they had done no such thing. Their child grew up being told that their mother had ‘given them away’. “The mothers had to endure a cruel double dose of shame. First, the shame of getting pregnant out of wedlock and second, when society’s attitude to unmarried mothers changed, they were judged for supposedly not caring about their babies and giving away their baby.”
Ms Harman said the committee acknowledges the “grave wrong” done to mothers and their children, adding: “It is time for the government to do the same and issue the apology they seek. “For decades they have been vilified. Now they need to be vindicated.” As part of the committee’s inquiry, women shared personal testimony about their experiences. One woman said being sent away from her family to have a baby on her own aged 15 had “scarred me for life”. Another woman said she was persuaded by a social worker that “there really was no alternative but to have my baby adopted”. The committee’s report calls for more support and specialised counselling for people affected by the practices, and for the government to make it easier for those trying to trace their mother or child. It is calling for improved access to records, the linking of birth and adoption certificates to aid tracing, and improved sharing of medical information. The government said it would carefully consider the committee’s findings. A government spokeswoman said: “We have the deepest sympathy to all those affected by historic forced adoption. “While we cannot undo the past, we have strengthened our legislation and practice to be built on empathy, from NHS maternity services caring for vulnerable women and babies, to our work transforming the adoption process and care system to help children settle into stable homes. “There is help available for those affected by past adoption practices, including with tracing their birth children or parents.”