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Launch of
The Market in Babies: Stories Of Australian Adoption

The Market in Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption, by Marian Quartly, Shurlee Swain and Denise Cuthbert, was launched by Professor The Honourable Nahum Mushin on 28 November 2013 at RMIT University. Monash University Publishing is pleased to be able to present Professor Mushin's full launch speech here:

The Market in Babies - Launch Speech

Thank you to Monash Publishing and the authors, Professor Emerita Marian Quartly and Professors Shurlee Swain and Denise Cuthbert, for the invitation to launch The Market in Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption. It is a compelling title which presages an important contribution to our knowledge and understanding of forced adoptions in Australia, a course of conduct which is a blot on the nation’s history.

This excellent book is a product of five years of research by the three highly qualified and experienced senior academics. They were supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant and considerable input from many researchers. The methodology included the excellent Monash University History of Adoption website to which a large number of people affected by forced adoption contributed their experiences. The authors draw on three primary sources for their factual material. The first of those is the website, the second is the face-to-face interviews conducted by their researchers and the third is the Senate Report “Former forced adoption policies and practices” tabled in February last year.

In their introduction, the authors commence with a “survey … of the major turning points …” of adoption. It is a brief history which provides the base for everything that follows. We then read many of the facts of forced adoption. That is always a harrowing experience. An excellent, detailed history of adoption follows from which anyone interested in these issues will learn much. It commences in the second half of the 19th century and finishes in the present. We learn of the development of various support organisations and the vital roles peer groups and professional groups provide in all aspects of these events.

The history would not be complete without looking into the future. The rise and fall of inter-country adoption from wars in which Australia has been involved, for example the Vietnam war, are discussed in excellent detail and the rise of surrogacy, particularly overseas, are considered.

The first adoption legislation was enacted in the 1920s. Prior to that, it was an informal process in which authorities had no role. From the outset, it entailed a child being placed in the care of strangers to the total exclusion of his or her parents. That exclusion involved the erasing of the whole of the background of the child including race, culture and ethnicity. The parents (by which I mean the child’s mother and father as distinct from the adoptive parents) were not even included on the birth certificate. It was as though they simply did not exist. In more recent times we have seen the advent of “open adoption” which enables the Court to order some ongoing contact between the child and the parents.

It is pertinent to observe that the Commonwealth has never had jurisdiction in adoption, save for its responsibility for Territory laws which involved minimal numbers. Accordingly, from the outset and until the present day, there are eight sets of legislation in adoption, each of them different from the others.

The Senate recorded the first reliable records of adoption numbers as commencing in approximately 1940. From that time there have been approximately 250,000 adoptions in Australia. About 150,000 of those took place in the 20 years from 1951. Today, the numbers are miniscule.

The experiences of forced adoption, which were at the heart of so many adoptions, are all too familiar. They start with the pregnancy of young, single mothers without means. Their pregnancies were considered profoundly shameful by community standards which had appalling consequences. Parents, peers, professionals, religious institutions and the wider community could not cope with the shame of these pregnancies. Mothers were sent away to have their babies, to the country, interstate and even overseas. They usually had no support from loved ones. They were institutionalized and dehumanized. The large numbers of mothers who were under age had no guardian. I have been unable to find any record of any mother in this situation having access to independent advice, either from a lawyer or a social worker. They had no decision making role in the adoption.

The birth experiences were equally appalling. Mothers were restrained, often forcibly, drugged and were prevented from seeing their babies. They were not allowed to touch them or visit them. To the extent that their parents were supportive, seemingly quite rarely, they were also not permitted to visit their grandchild or daughter. Legally necessary consents were either forged or signed by the mothers and post-dated to comply with the requirement of not less than five days after the birth. They were not told of their rights of revocation or given the necessary paperwork. There was no consideration of their emotional or mental health.

As recorded by former Prime Minister Gillard in the formal motion and her outstanding speech at the National apology in March this year, large numbers of these adoptions were illegal. That illegality conclusively negates any suggestion that the experiences related above, and many others like them, might be justified by the community attitudes of the time, often referred to as “community mores”.

By contrast, the prospective adoptive parents were seen as the saviors of the children. They were infertile. Their emotional needs to have a child were being met and they were seen as doing the community, the mothers and particularly the babies who they were adopting, an enormous service. The contrasts between their treatment and that of the mothers was stark.

To return to the book’s title, there was the market. Totally disempowered mothers and correspondingly empowered adoptive parents. The subjects of this market were the babies who, to the extent that they had any voice at all, were represented by people who assumed that the babies’ rights were best observed by the adoption taking place. That proposition was not questioned in any proper way on behalf of the babies. On the basis that the best interests of the child must be paramount, there was a total failure of substance and process. That, in my view, is one of the most important, but not the only, contribution which The Market in Babies makes to our understanding of these appalling events in our nation’s history.

And what of the future? The Market in Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption requires us to examine our attitudes to where we are going in the whole area of children who are apparently unable to remain in the care of at least one of their parents or other family member. For me that consideration, which arises directly from the issues raised by the authors, requires a national debate on fundamental questions, some of which are as follows:

•    Is the fragmentation of the adoption jurisdiction sustainable today or should the States and Territories refer their jurisdiction to the Commonwealth for the enactment of one consistent law throughout Australia?

•    Arising out of the terrible treatment of a significant portion of the population over many decades, is adoption a sustainable concept today?

•    On the basis that the best interests of the child must be the paramount consideration in determining his or her care, are our processes in adoption properly observing that requirement?

•    Does inter-country adoption raise further issues relevant to the paramountcy test?

•    On the basis that domestic law has banned all commercial surrogacy, what issues arise in overseas surrogacy and particularly commercial surrogacy?

Finally, The Market in Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption is an important book for those who are involved in, and care about, children in need. I commend it to you and have great pleasure in launching it.

— Nahum Mushin, 28 November, 2013

 

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