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The forced adoption scandal caused huge pain to thousands of teen mothers and their children – it is time for an apology and public inquiry

The forced adoption scandal caused huge pain to thousands of teen mothers and their children – it is time for an apology and public inquiry

Hundreds of thousands of young, unmarried women were forced to give up their children in the 1960s and 70s | Alamy

4 min read

The right to family life is one of the most fundamental of human rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. There could hardly be a more dreadful breach of those rights than forcibly taking a newborn baby from its mother.

Following the campaign by women who had their babies taken from them in the 1960s and 1970s, the Joint Committee on Human Rights is considering how we respond to the call for a public apology for, and a public inquiry into, the forced adoptions that took hundreds of thousands of babies from their teenage unmarried mothers in the UK. So far, 60 MPs have backed that call.

Being a teenager myself at the time, I remember the constant terror of pregnancy in those days before the contraceptive pill.

It is a travesty to say that these young women “gave away” their babies. There was no meaningful consent. They were told, ‘it’s best for your baby, who will suffer if you selfishly keep it to live in poverty and under the shame of illegitimacy. You will ruin your own life and bring shame on your family’. Often there was no choice at all.

Yet to this day, these women live with the anguish of whether there was anything they could have done. There wasn’t, and a recognition and an apology is necessary to ease their suffering.

They were made to give birth without proper help in order to deter them from being “wicked” again.

They were told that they would “forget about it” and move on. But mothers do not and cannot ever forget about a baby that they have given birth to. Only a society dominated by men who never listened to women could even consider that possible.

Many endured such turmoil they never had another child, or their shame for “giving up” their first child marred their relationship with their subsequent children

Girls who were made pregnant by unmarried men often had “shotgun weddings” to ensure the child's legitimacy. But the young women in these forced adoption cases were those who were impregnated by men who were already married, or ran off, or denied responsibility. They impregnated girls, and then abandoned them. Often the young girl who had sex with an older married man was not even consenting in the way we understand consent now.

It was quite common for families to conceal the young woman’s pregnancy and bring up the child as if the grandmother had given birth to it. The family then lived a lifelong lie where the child would believe that its mother was its sister.  Being denied that knowledge when you live in the same home is a terrible thing for both mother and child.

There was not the same problem for middle class girls. Abortions were not available on the NHS but they could be bought privately. My friends did, and in our family the £50 our parents put in a Post Office account for us was called, only half-jokingly, our “abortion money”. In the rare cases where middle class families supported a teenage mother to keep her baby, they had the money to support them too, which was not possible for working class families.

There have been huge advances in tackling infertility, but there was a cruel stigma at that time. Back then, adoption was the only answer. Teenage mothers were used to provide a supply of babies for “respectable married couples”.

No-one challenged this inhuman practice. Hundreds of thousands of women suffered all their life because no one listened to young, working class women. Hundreds of thousands of children were robbed of the chance to be brought up by their mother.

The adoptions were forced decades ago. But the pain and suffering is still there today. It is not too late to acknowledge this barbaric system and learn hard lessons about young people, oppression and inequality which we still need to understand today.

Harriet Harman is Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham, chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and Mother of the House

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