When MP for Wirral South Alison McGovern, decided to try to get an apology from the British government for its forced adoption policies in the 1960s, she didn’t realise that what she was asking for would place the government in an impossible position.
At a debate she hosted on 12th July, McGovern asked the Children and Families Minister, Nadhim Zahawi, to offer a formal apology to women who had had their babies forcibly removed from them at birth, under a policy which considered single women to be unfit mothers. Zahawi never offered an apology, and didn’t confirm that he would take the request up to the Prime Minister to try to get a national apology on the practice, which other countries like Australia had already done.
Australia is often ahead of the curve and ahead of the UK when it comes to child protection. In 2013, the then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard apologised to women nationwide for similar forced adoption practices which took place inside the country during the 1950s and 1960s. One year before Gillard made her speech, New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell, also publicly apologised over the policy of previous government in Australia to remove children from unmarried mothers. Two states inside the country had already apologised for the practices prior to O’Farrell’s own apology. That’s four official “I’m sorry” speeches from just one country.
So why does the UK refuse to apologise for forced adoption at all?
The answer lies in the UK’s continued use of forced adoption, or involuntary adoption as it is sometimes called today. During the debate in the House of Commons last month, whilst McGovern was trying to focus the government’s mind on an apology, it was Zahawi’s bizarre and factually incorrect speech which caught the public’s attention. Unsolicited, the Children and Families Minister went off on a tangent, offering reasons why today’s forced adoption practices were legitimate, and different to previous government’s historic policies, all whilst side stepping the question of an apology.
Zahawi’s strained speech highlighted an uncomfortable truth: if he apologised for historic forced adoption policies, he would effectively be ceding ground, leaving him and the government vulnerable to inspection over its modern day policies around forced adoption. Someone must have explained to Zahawi that the adoption sector, which is underpinned by forced adoption today, would fall apart overnight if he were to apologise for anything remotely connected to its existence.
Researching Reform tried to reach out to Alison McGovern to explain the intimate connection between the two periods of forced adoption, but we never got a reply. Without this understanding, her efforts at obtaining an apology fell by the wayside, and an opportunity to open a real and meaningful debate, which would have benefitted a far larger number of women, and men, was lost.
As for Zahawi’s argument during the debate that 21st century forced adoption in the UK is different to past practice and perfectly legitimate, much like most of his speech, it stands on shaky ground. Modern day forced adoption practices target vulnerable families in the same way historic policies on forced adoption once did, and have led to groups like Legal Action For Women openly accusing the government of taking children away from able mothers. A growing body of social work professionals are also questioning the legality of forced adoption, concerned about the ethical and human rights violations the policy presents, as well as its impact on children.
Forced adoption has seen a worldwide decline, mostly because countries have become aware that consensual adoption is far better for families and children, doesn’t hinder child protection and removes many of the conflicts of interest involuntary adoption creates, which include pitting birth parents against adoptive parents from the outset.
It’s time we had a consultation on modern day forced adoption practices in the UK, and we will be asking for one.