The Apologetics of Social Mores

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Regarding Forced Adoption Apologies to Date

Regarding a national forced adoption apology (announced by the Attorney General's department on the 23rd June 2012).

The committee of Origins wishes to see this formulated in accordance with recommendations contained in the final report of the Senate Inquiry into the Commonwealth contribution to former forced adoption policies and practices (tabled on the 29th of February).

To date, apologies have been offered by the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, the Sisters of Mercy, St Anne’s Hospital in Perth, the Benevolent Society, the Western Australian Government, Catholic Health Australia and the Royal Women’s Hospital.

The committee of Origins has officially rejected such apologies, instead campaigning for the 2012 Inquiry which led to guidelines for future apologies. Origins committee is of the view that such guidelines will be essential to the integrity of the proposed national apology to victims of forced adoption.

As far as the authors of the Final Report are concerned, most if not all of the forced adoption apologies to date serve as exemplars of what not to say as well as what needs to be included in future apologies.

Origins committee is of the view that the healing power of apologies to date has been diminished by apologetics serving only to add insult to injury.

According to Wolfinger, ‘The word ‘apology’ in its most common usage is an admission of error followed by an expression of regret. While some recent apologies by institutions involved in former forced adoption policies and practices circa 1950s-1980s expressed regret over past actions, all eight apologies failed to consist in a full admission of the fact that the removalist policies of the day were in fact major breaches of the common law.’ Justice Richard Chisholm who gave evidence at the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Adoption Practices (1998-2000), according to the founder of Origins SPSA Inc, Dian Wellfare, declared that the practice of taking the baby without the mother’s consent was "technically kidnapping and unlawful".

Notably, the final report of the Inquiry made it clear that ‘acknowledging hurt and distress is not the same thing as stating what caused it, and then taking responsibility for that action.’

In her seminal article on the topic of forced adoption apologies, Wolfinger also makes the point that, ‘In light of the findings of the Inquiry, past apologies look more like a defense than a remorseful admission of past wrongs’ in ‘employ(ing) statements like (adoption) was considered at the time to be in the best interests of the child.’

Accordingly, Origins committee also hopes that a national apology will unequivocally acknowledge that forced adoption policies and practices were 'violent, 'illegal' and 'unethical'.

Following are examples of views of past forced adoption providers - featuring extracts from submissions to the 2012 senate Inquiry - which have animated their apologies to date:

The Royal Women’s Hospital (RWH) submission, for example, attributes forced adoption to a prevailing view of society, suggesting that those mothers in signing adoption consents were merely motivated by shame and social control of their families: ‘Families maintained ultimate control over the fate of their daughters, effectively endorsing society‘s message of her wrongdoing and further instilling a sense of guilt and shame.’

Notably, the following statement by Fiona Judd - the director of the Centre for Women's Mental Health at the RWH - suggests that unmarried mothers were compelled to relinquish their infants by societal forces rather than any compulsion applied by practices or policies of the RWH itself: ‘We are apologising to every woman who felt that she had no choice but to relinquish her baby for adoption whilst in our care.’ To the contrary, an intra RWH memo (pasted below) - reproduced subsequent to Judd’s public apology during the airing of “Given or Taken” (Four Corners, ABC) - details the differential treatment unmarried mothers received at the hands of RWH staff.

Recommendations of the final report of the Inquiry however emphatically highlighted that references to values of the day (which apologies included) were not to be used in future apologies: “The committee recommends that official apologies should include statements that take responsibility…and not be qualified by reference to values or professional practice during the period in question”.

In fact, many of the former forced adoption apologies were all but declared null and void by the Inquiry. Notably, during the tabling of the report, Senator Rachel Siewert stated that the social mores excuse favoured in forced adoption apologies was fallacious: "We have heard it said that what happened reflected the standards and the views of the time. We believe that is in fact not true”.

Regarding the view that forced adoption’s prevalence was due to a limitation of knowledge and social conditions - implying that ignorance of the law is an excuse to break it - the following extract from the submission of the Benevolent Society makes a value judgment validating forced adoption rationale:

This message of sacrifice for the benefit of the child was stated and repeated: adoption could give the child a better chance, a loving two parent family, material advantages, security, freedom from the stigma of illegitimacy. At the time, however, these reasons were widely believed and could be said to be true in the knowledge and social conditions of the time (p. 15).

To the contrary, Australia's Westminster system of liberal democracy based on the rule of law, regards ignorance of the law as no excuse to break it.

Similarly, the submission of Family Voice Australia attributes forced adoption to a prevalent action arising from good intentions, suggesting that forced adoption was entirely a product of social forces:

It is certainly a matter of agreement today that the consent of the birth parents to adoption should be freely given on the basis of full information, a lack of coercion and an appropriate cooling off period. It is important, though, to distinguish the issue of failure to obtain fully informed and free consent from the social context in which the consensus was that, in principle, a child born out of wedlock was better off being raised by a married couple than brought up by a single mother on her own. (Family Voice Australia, p. 1)

Refuting the above statements in defence of forced adoption, the tabling speeches of the 2012 Inquiry presented a unanimous view, typified by the following excerpt, that forced adoption was not the ‘standards and views’ of the time but often a violation of the law as acknowledged by governments and institutions during the period in question:

We have heard it said that what happened reflected the standards and the views of the time. We believe that is in fact not true…The committee concludes that the government and institutions in the 1960s and 1970s were presented with a range of professional advice about adoption. Little of it challenged adoption as a practice; however, a great deal of it cautioned against placing pressures on mothers to encourage the surrender of babies for adoption, and some of it explicitly drew attention to the requirements of the law and the risks of it being violated (tabling speeches, p. 1251)

Again opposing the defence of forced adoption on the grounds of social mores, the Final report of the 2012 inquiry stresses the responsibility of bureaucrats and legislators as policy developers:

Some submitters to the inquiry recounted that 'that's just how it was then' or 'everyone believed that a closed adoption was in everyone's best interest'. The committee is not convinced that this was the case. Certainly, those attitudes were prominent and expressed in public. However, as is the case today, societal views were divided and the remedies to problems of adoption arrangements identified by bureaucrats and legislators represented a single solution, not the only solution, to these issues. As professionals charged with developing policy options, the public servants of the period had responsibility to consider the range of evidence and views available. As representatives of the governments of Australia's states, the ministers took responsibility for making the choices that they did, amongst the options available to them (Final Report, 7.119).

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IMAGE BELOW: Royal Women's (Melbourne) Intra-Hospital Memo as per "Given or Taken" - an episode of Four Forners detailing forced adoption:


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