ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 4, Autumn 2012

Given or taken?

For half centuary single mothers in Australia were forced to sign their newborn babies away for adoption. Margie Dimech speaks to Professor Shurlee Swain and Christin Quirk about how their research helped The Royal Women’s Hospital understand their role in the nation’s dark adoption history.

Until the 1970s single mothers in Australia were forced to sign their newborn babies away for adoption new research by ACU academic Professor Shurlee Swain has verified.

The practise, known as ‘closed adoptions’, was based on the premise that unwed women would be unfit mothers, and would more easily give their baby away if they had not yet seen or held their child.

“It was the practise for all hospitals from the 1950s to not allow them [the mother] to see the child,” said Professor Swain. “The belief was that it would hurt the mother’s less if they didn’t actually see their child.”

The research, undertaken by Professor Swain and ACU postgraduate student Christin Quirk, was commissioned by The Royal Women’s Hospital, Victoria. The findings, which were presented to a Senate inquiry into Australian adoptive practises from 1945 to 1975, prompted the hospital to apologise for their past practises.

“My research involved examining hospital archives and [conducting] interviews with women who had given birth at The Royal Women’s Hospital,” said Christin. “I also spoke to former hospital staff to get a more complete picture of what was happening at this time."

About 20 women were interviewed from The Hospital and the research also drew upon the more than 400 submissions that were made to the inquiry. Examining this information, we started to see similarities and commonalities between the mothers’ experiences, regardless of the year or hospital they gave birth at.”

Despite a Federal Government adoption act stating that consent could only be given by a mother in a stable state of mind – women interviewed reported feeling pressured into adopting out their child.

“It was not accepted that children could be brought up outside the union of marriage,” said Professor Swain. “The parents of these women – and more importantly, the people in positions of power: doctors, social workers and nurses – felt they knew what was best for the new mothers, and their answer was adoption.

“In hindsight, these women feel that they were coerced into signing consent, being told that the only alternative to adoption was for their child to grow up in an orphanage. That trauma has never left them.”

Christin explained that hearing the first-hand stories from women who had experienced forced adoption practises was a moving experience

“Prior to my research at ACU, I had been involved with The Council for the Single Mother and her Child – a support organisation for single mothers.

“I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but quite a few of the founding members of the organisation – in the late 1960s and early 1970s – had experienced the practise of ‘closed adoptions’ and were fighting to change it.

“As a single mother, I was aware of the stigma and the issues surrounding being a single mum – our research helped complete the picture.” Greens Senator Rachel Siewert headed  the Senate inquiry that examined the Commonwealth’s contribution to former forced adoption policies and practices.

She said there is no doubt that illegal practises occurred. The inquiry’s recommendations, which were announced on 29 February 2012, included that the Government issue a formal apology, as well as implement, and fund, a national framework to address the consequences of former forced adoptions.

For more information, or to access the Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices report, visit

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