The Australian Senate is presently holding an enquiry into the forced removal of babies from unmarried mothers in Australia. ABC's Four Corners program last Monday night was harrowing: you read more here, and there's a link to the program on iview if you're in Australia. Some dreadful stories have come to light, with a common theme: although it was an illegal practice, mothers were coerced and pressured, even forced and lied to, to give up their babies for adoption because they were not married. No women have come forward saying that they were not subject to this pressure; only one that I have seen successfully resisted it. One analysis I haven't seen here in Australia is that of New Zealand feminist Anne Else - who, incidentally, was awarded her PhD at the age of 61 in 2006. (Anne's wonderful blog is presently telling the story of her grief and slow recovery from the death of her husband Harvery McQueen.) Anne's 1991 book A question of adoption: closed stranger adoption in New Zealand, 1944–1974 postulated that New Zealand society in the middle decades of the twentieth century had identified two socially abherrent groups: the unmarried mothers and the married unmothers. A device (closed stranger adoption) was invented to take care of both of these social problems: the childless married woman and the unfortunately unchildless woman who had no husband. It is a measure of the control that was exerted on women, and by the social order and notions of 'right and proper' more generally (society was believed to be held up by three pillars: religion, medicine and law), that this regime stayed in place so long. Nurses of my acquaintance who did their 'middy' (midwifery training) in the 60s and 70s still talk about the horror of having to remove babies from unmarried mothers, and of the bullying and cruelty of older nurses who enforced this practice on behalf of society. (Did I mention it was illegal?)
When I worked as a proofreader at a legal publishers in the 1980s I read a lot of very boring stuff (as you can imagine). But one case has stuck in my brain: a young woman who had been coerced and bullied into signing papers to give her baby up for adoption when she was still in hospital, and now wanted her baby back two years later. Under New Zealand law you couldn't sign any legal papers until you were seven days post-partum. The case hinged on the legal definition of day - was it a 24-hour period from an event, or the hospital definition, in which the 'day' started at midday (which is why most people were discharged in the morning, lest they be a cost on the system for another day). It was decided that she had signed those papers less than seven legal days after the baby's birth, and her child, which had been legally adopted by another family some two years before, was given back to her. The terrible emotions involved in that whole case have haunted me since.
Eight years ago I told the story of my own adoption here. Please go and read it now; I'll still be here when you get back. I posted more details about Pat and Nan here. There is a small final chapter to that story: Nan died peacefully, in a motel room one afternoon in Wanaka in 2008. She was 92, and was visiting the area with a group of friends. The day before she died she had enjoyed an outing on the river - jetboating. She was one of a kind.