Taking the children away: what have we learnt from past Australian practices when children were removed from their families?

Issue ThreeNon-Fiction

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By Janice Simpson


As a nation, we have taken lessons from what occurred in the past. We have outlawed baby farming, a practice which sometimes resulted in the death and murder of infants and gave rise to various organisations established to protect children (Hetherington 2007). Aboriginal children are no longer subject to damage and abuse by being summarily removed from their families (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997), although indigenous children are taken into care at ten times the rate of non-indigenous children, an alarming statistic (Australian Institute of Family Studies 2015). Orphanages no longer operate, various inquiries providing testimony to maltreatment and lack of care within their walls (Senate Community Affairs References Committee 2004). Assisted reproductive technologies (ART) that make it possible for babies to be born using donor gametes and artificial means of conception have resulted in children born to a biological parent or to surrogates or a combination thereof. Although regulated from the outset (National Health and Medical Research Council 2015), people born as a result of ART were not provided until recently with identifying information which might allow them to trace their biological inheritance (Wise & Kovacs 2014). Local adoption is no longer ‘closed’ or secret (Higgins 2012). Both intercountry adoption and international surrogacy are subject to state and territory regulations that conform to the United Nations’ Hague principles (Attorney General’s Department 2014). Altruistic local surrogacy arrangements are legal everywhere in Australia except the Northern Territory (Fitzroy Legal Service 2015), but cannot be adequately enforced by current policies and laws. Children born as a result of commercial surrogacy can find themselves in no man’s land (Everingham 2014; Moody-Adams 1991). Wherever we look, there is considerable data concerning people whose lives have been affected by previous practices involving removing children from their biological beginnings and heritage. Yet there is current pressure to relax regulation (Clarke 2015; Karvelas 2014). This is often framed as either ‘saving’ children from lives bound up by poverty or fear or both (Fronek 2014), or by preventing illegal practices that might result from banning surrogacy altogether (Skene 2012).


A policy approach is not new

From the earliest of times, there are records concerning the adoption of children into families. The ancient Babylonian lawbook, The Laws of Hammurabi (1792-1750BC), states ‘The chief topics of this division (of the laws) are… the laws of inheritance, and the adoption of children’ (Vincent 1904, p. 740). Paulissian argues that ‘poverty, continuous warfare, famine, and disease were the main causes of abandonment and orphanage of infants and children’ in these times (Paulissian 1999, p. 5). The Codex Justinianus (529-565AD) developed in ancient Rome, also set out laws relating to adoption. Birth mothers retained all rights to their adopted children (Smith, Wayte & Marindin 1890). Ancient Greeks also enacted laws relating to child adoption. It is worth noting that in documented adoptions that occurred in fourth century Athens, all adoptees shared a blood link to their adopting family via the mother (Wilgaux 2010).


Policy in colonial Australia

William Hogarth’s engraving A Rake’s Progress (Plate 3) depicts life on the streets of 18th century London, where agricultural labourers and small landholders displaced by the Industrial Revolution found themselves in the company of traders and voyagers from the East and West Indies, trying to eke out a living as best they could. Moving to the cities to find work disrupted centuries-old patterns of family and community life. Crime became more common, as did illegitimacy, an illegitimate child defined as ‘parentless at law, and even the subsequent marriage of the parents could not legitimize their offspring’ (Frost 2003, p. 293). Britain needed solutions and so the system of transporting prisoners to Australia began. However, within a few years, orphan children were roaming the streets of Sydney and Governor King was exhorted to establish orphanages (Ramsland 2011). Girls and boys were separated, and for girls ‘the emphasis on domestic training was supposed to bring into effect King’s prime object of moral regeneration by rescuing girls from the “great depravity” which existed among the “present inhabitants” of the colony’ (Ramsland 2011, p. 2). Boys were apprenticed to tradesmen.


From earliest times, most societies had some system of adoption in place to manage orphans and as societies became more civilised (my italics as it is arguable whether it is civilised to remove babies from their birth mothers) to also manage unexpected and unwanted pregnancies. The ancient Babylonian law book, The Laws of Hammurabi (1792-1750BC), describes laws relating to adoption: ‘The chief topics of this division (of the laws) are: slander, marriage contracts, adultery, rape, divorce and separation, status of concubines, types of immorality, the property of women, the betrothal present and the marriage settlement, the laws of inheritance, and the adoption of children’ (Vincent 1904). The Codex Justinianus (529-565AD) developed in ancient Rome sets out regulations and laws relating to adoption. Adopting boys was common to ensure families had a male heir, adopting girls was not so common. Ancient Greeks also employed regulations and laws relating to child adoption (Smith, Wayte & Marindin 1890). Things were no different in colonial Australia.


But further social problems needed attention. It became apparent that trying to establish a civilised society where men outnumbered women by eight to one was impossible. One solution was to offer women free passage to come to Australia to become a wife. This policy was known as ‘The Bounty System’ but it did not prove popular with British women. A new policy that targeted Irish orphan girls between the ages of 14 and 18 was implemented (Mitchell 2013) cleverly providing solutions to the cost of housing orphans, some of whom were born illegitimate, and the issue of providing wives for pardoned convicts and free settlers. When the girls arrived at Sydney docks, they might face a ‘wife sale’ where they were sold to the highest bidder either a free settler or pardoned convict (Ihde 1998). Through these methods it was thought that order and civility could be established at the outset, avoiding the risk that the very fabric of the new colony might stagger and cave in under the weight of debauchery.


The Gold Rushes in the 1850s provided more social problems for the colonies. Families were established, settlement of the new land expanded and the colony was at last able to send its produce to the British markets. Commonly, families if they had the means to do so, absorbed illegitimate children defined as ‘a child born of parents not lawfully married to each other; a person who is illegitimate at birth’ (The New Oxford Dictionary of English 1998), and brought them up as brothers, sisters or cousins. Otherwise if this was not possible, charitable homes and orphanages were found for children whose parents had died, been killed or simply were too poor and abandoned their children (Ramsland 2011), as well as the babies of single or ‘fallen’ women. The term ‘fallen woman’ is defined as ‘a woman who engaged in sexual activities outside marriage’ (The New Oxford Dictionary of English 1998). It applied to those whose behaviour was found out, as well as those who became pregnant and gave birth to an illegitimate child. It is believed that the word ‘fallen’ was used to indicate that the woman had fallen from the grace of God. Frequently these were girls and women who eked out a living as prostitutes, pleasuring the rich and powerful (Bass 2014; Frances 1994; Summers 1975), but also those who did not have support to bring up a child within the family. Other children came into the homes too, born to young girls with dark eyes who worked as unpaid domestics in white households, the sexual victims of privileged sons and their fathers (Harris 2003).


In colonial times, baby farming occurred followed by the establishment of homes and orphanages in the late 19th century. From the late 1920s until the 1970s, legalised adoption practices removed more than 300,000 babies from their birth mothers. The stories of Indigenous children who were stolen from their families captured our hearts and are central to current attempts to achieve reconciliation. Removing children from their country of origin and bringing them to Australia to start a new life had its origins in the ‘Baby Lift Operation’ at the conclusion of the Vietnam War. Reproductive technologies as well as surrogacy have opened up new possibilities for removing children from their birth mothers.


Dorothy Wickham (2003) provides an examination of the Ballarat Female Refuge, describing how the nineteenth century Christian ladies of the gold-rich Ballarat founded a home for girls and women and their babies in 1867. The home provided both pre- and post-natal care, ensuring the infant would have the best chance of survival by feeding from its mother’s breast until able to take solids. The ladies were moved by common humanity, but also saw an opportunity to stamp authority on the moral conduct of an emerging society by instructing the mothers-to-be in Christian values. The home was situated on a modest property where the inmates were ‘hidden behind high walls, physically, morally and emotionally’ (Wickham 2003, p. 3). It can be assumed that the high walls served many purposes, not least to keep the women from running away with their tiny children, some of who may have wanted to join a lover and fend the best they could as a new family. On the matter of occupying the unfortunate girls and women, solutions were found by setting up cottage industries within the homes’ walls. Laundry services, similar to the Magdalene Laundries that operated in Ireland under the auspices of Roman Catholic nuns (British Broadcasting Commission 2013), proliferated and the expectant and lactating mothers worked long hours boiling, starching, drying and pressing the fancy frills and stiff collars of the clothes worn by the town’s well-to-do, or supplying clean linen to hotels and hospitals (Gill 2003). When the time was right, the mothers returned to society.


Baby Farming

Baby farming was widely practised in Australia in the 19th century. Many women, whose families could not assist, were forced to seek live-in paid work and give up their illegitimate babies. Foster parents were found, or in some circumstances, a woman known as a ‘baby farmer’ agreed to take on the child. The baby farmer received a fee, perhaps a lump sum or a weekly stipend, to feed and nourish the baby in her care. Not all of the women who took in babies were ethical. Some disappeared with the deposit money, or sold the babies to foster parents. In other cases, the babies that were useful only for the fee they brought with them were starved or beaten to death. As it was the law to register illegitimate babies within three days of their birth, women with unregistered babies were loath to complain if their baby disappeared. The mother paid for the service, and in some cases, continued to pay long after her baby had died.


Frances Knorr, one of only five women hanged in Victoria, allegedly did not profit from her baby farming activities. Knorr lived in Melbourne in the 1890s. She was an unregistered nurse who took in babies to make money. Those she could not sell to foster parents were murdered. She was hanged in 1894 at Pentridge Prison. The prosecution case proved that she strangled babies, buried them and moved on to other premises. Infant corpses were dug up in the precincts of a house she rented in Brunswick. According to Kathy Laster (2005):
A more sympathetic reading of the evidence was that she was an unstable young woman eking out a precarious existence in difficult times. She had cared for some infants, and returned one to its mother. In other cases she passed on children to other women, paying them a lower fee. She made no great profit from any of these enterprises.


Around the same time, a Perth woman, Alice Mitchell, was charged and found guilty of the manslaughter of five-month-old Ethel Booth, who had been in her care since infancy. With no breast milk available, Mitchell found it hard to feed the child. Infant formula was hard to obtain and so mixtures of flour and water, of little nutritional value, were commonly given. At the trial, evidence was brought about twenty-nine children who had died in Mitchell’s care, most perhaps wasting away on a diet of flour and water. In any event, the doctor who signed the death certificates attributed the deaths to ‘marasmus’ – wasting away as a result of malnutrition. Penelope Hetherington’s paper (2007) explores problems faced by unmarried mothers, focusing on how attitudes changed towards illegitimacy after the inquest into the death of Ethel Booth, and the subsequent trial of Alice Mitchell which led to changes in the law.


Annie Cossins’ book (2013) about the sensational case involving the Makins who turned their hands to looking after other women’s babies, describes how an income could be earned by answering advertisements in newspapers for someone to take care of a baby. John Makin was hanged in 1892 and his wife Sarah had her death sentence commuted to life in gaol following their convictions as murderers. The bodies of eight children were discovered buried in the backyards of various houses the Makins had lived in.


To outlaw unlawful baby farming practices, the colony of Victoria introduced the Infant Life Protection Act in 1898. Roll books recorded the names of children in care, including the date of admission and departure. Inquests into deaths were mandated. The police, who made fortnightly checks of the homes where the babies were kept, administered the law. Other colonies passed similar laws in the 1890s. This was the beginning of more scrutiny into the lives of children who no longer resided with their birth mothers.



Throughout Australia, until the 1980s, the law of filius nullius took away the Common Law rights of the babies put up for adoption. Babies born illegitimately were literally, the sons of nobody. There was no compulsion to register a father on a birth certificate. Swain and Howe write that ‘in practice the term filius nullius was taken to mean child of no man, thereby shielding men from the consequences of their behaviour while casting a greater burden on the erring mother’ (Swain & Howe 1996, p. 175). A mother’s name was all that was required, and after the laws that strengthened the secrecy surrounding adoption were passed in most states in the 1920s, children were not even privy to their real birth certificates, as new ones were issued after courts formalised the adoption. These certificates bore the names of a child’s adopting father and mother, as well as the new name given to the child.


It is estimated that more than 300,000 babies were adopted in Australia over a sixty-year period, beginning in most states in the late 1920s. By virtue of their mother’s signature on a piece of paper, even if the mother was not of legal age, the babies became the children of other people. There is substantial evidence that many new mothers did not willingly sign the papers and were tricked into signing away their rights and those of their children (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2012; Standing Committee on Social Issues 2000). The children only gained legal rights when their new parents officially adopted them through state and territory courts. Governments of the day were bi-partisan in their support of adoption, which was seen as a simple way to rid society of unwanted children, and at the same time solve the problem of couples that desired children of their own, but had no joy in making them. A similar argument is used today in relation to the right of adults to engage surrogate mothers to craft a family for them. It was also a convenient way to publicise the ‘populate or perish’ message by making a family a realisable commodity that even the barren could achieve. Australia was a vast land needing workers to exploit its natural and introduced resources. Migrants provided much-needed labour after the Second World War to achieve reconstruction and industrialisation, with large infrastructure projects built almost entirely by newly arrived migrants. In 1945, Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell as cited in Ozdowski (2013) wrote:


If the experience of the Pacific War has taught us one thing, it surely is that seven million Australians cannot hold three million square miles of this earth’s surface indefinitely.


The old cry ‘populate or perish’ won new currency with all major parties and mass migration started.


Until the 1920s, informal fostering or adoption was commonplace and proved an adequate solution for a chronic problem. It required only the auspices of a mediator, often the matron or registrar of a home or hospital, a list of willing parents-to-be, and the consent, informed or otherwise, of the mother. Records were as good as the hospital registers. The foster or ‘adopting’ parents had access to information about their baby’s mother, and vice versa, and in many cases met each other in the ‘lying-in’ period and exchanged their hopes for the infant. ‘It was legal and also quite common, for people involved in an adoption to share information about each other’ (Department of Families and Community 2009).


In the late 1920s, a campaign began to legalise adoption because of the expressed concerns about how best to protect the interests of adoptive parents. The interests of birth mothers and adopted children were also considered, or so it was claimed at the time (Higgins 2012). Clearly, this consideration for the birth mothers and their children would have been very different from the considerations that prevail today.


Formal adoption legislation designed to introduce secrecy, called ‘closed adoption’, was passed in Victoria in 1928, following South Australia’s lead in 1926 (Higgins 2012). Secrecy was enshrined as a response to the stigma attached to illegitimacy. For many agencies working in the adoption field, it became paramount to achieve a good physical match between child and parents, so that the child could substitute for a biological child. This practice cannot be argued to be in the best interests of the child, as it inferred intent to keep children ignorant of their identity.


Laws changed again in the 1960s to further restrict information. Birth certificates, re-issued as ‘extracts’, only included the name and details of the adopting parents, again reinforcing that the adopted baby was the biological product of the marriage. Whispers and rumours may have floated on the air about so and so’s child, but in most households and communities, lips were sealed, and so the children grew up believing they were the natural progeny of their parents, just like any other kids. Many adoptees say they knew there was something different, and report feelings of unease and distance, but were unable to pin their disquiet to any particular event. Often they were told that it was a normal childhood fantasy to imagine parents had adopted them, or that adopted people looked different, and as they did not look different, they therefore could not possibly be adopted. This was the point when silence transformed itself into untruth.


Records were kept as minimal as possible. In some cases they obliterated the biological trail altogether, hence a generation of people born in the post-war years in Australia were denied access to their identity. These people must rely on the good will of their relinquishing mothers to make some sense of their birth. A woman giving evidence at a 1999 inquiry into adoption practices in New South Wales from the 1950s to the present (New South Wales Parliament 1999, p. 170), stated:


I want to say one last thing and that is I think that the mother was silenced and I think the child was silenced. As a teacher I taught a lot of adopted children and I usually found that, around about 13 to 15, there was a restlessness, there was a sort of inquiring: Who am I really?


Winston Churchill, when writing of the Battle of Egypt in the Second World War, stated ‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’ The election of the Whitlam Government in December 1972 certainly brought with it the beginning of the end of the systemic removal of children from their parents. Whitlam’s Government passed a law that provided financial support for a single mother and her child. As a result, the adoption rate of newborn infants dropped by two-thirds from 9798 in 1971 to 3337 in 1979 (ABS 1998).


In the 1980s, laws changed in response to community pressure to release secret files and services offered by governments, churches, self-help groups and others, were overwhelmed by adoptees seeking access to information. The adoptees wanted to know the identity of their birth mothers and fathers, the circumstances leading to their adoption, what their biological families looked like, and most of all, to feel the arms of a mother’s love. Sadly, for many of these children and their mothers, reunions were unsatisfactory, and did not really progress beyond information captured on statutory documents.


The sons and daughters of relinquishing mothers were born many times over in the decades when motherhood in Australia was only celebrated if the mother was married. Mothers were willed on by unhappy parents, outraged church members, pitiless hospital staff and judgemental social workers, or opted alone to sign papers that gave away their children for all time, thereby removing forever that child from its unique biology, hereditary and identity.


Aboriginal Children

Running parallel to adoption was the practice of forcibly removing children from their aboriginal families, which began in ‘the very first days of European occupation’ (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997, p. 22). By the end of the 19th century ‘full descent indigenous people’ were declining, but mixed descent people were increasing. It became common for the children – we now refer to those children as ‘The Stolen Generations’ – to be removed from their Aboriginal mother and family, and re-located into missions, institutions and private homes in an attempt to encourage a work ethic that would see the children grow up and be gainfully employed as station hands and domestic servants.


It is argued that assimilation was at the heart of the practice, an attempt to ‘merge’ Aboriginals with the non-indigenous population (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997). Regardless of the policies at play, and there were many as outlined in the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997). There were more than 700 pieces of legislation relating to Aborigines in existence in Australia up until and including 1975, when the practice of removing Aboriginal children dwindled or came to a stop. These included colonial and state laws as well as federal legislation. The effect of these policies on children and families was in the main dire. It is reported that many children were told they were unwanted by their mothers, and that their parents and families were worth little. Such pronouncements were bound to result at the very least in keenly felt grief.


The Inquiry found that the policy resulted in ‘damage (to) the children who were forcibly removed, their parents and siblings and their communities. Subsequent generations continue to suffer the effects of parents and grandparents having been forcibly removed, institutionalised, denied contact with their Aboriginality and in some cases traumatised and abused’, and that for the majority, ‘the effects have been multiple and profoundly disabling’ (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997, p. 154).


Intercountry Adoption

The practice of taking children from foreign countries and transplanting them into (mainly) middle class Australia is established practice. The children when officially adopted become Australian citizens. Adopting parents are those who cannot have their own babies, or who believe that it is in the child’s best interests to ‘save’ them from an otherwise obscure and insecure future in their homelands. History may well show this to be the right action in a time of environmental disasters, international strife and when the divide between the haves and the have-nots is still marked according to World Bank figures, which indicate that global poverty is still a massive problem with about 12% of the world’s population living on less than US$1.25 a day (World Bank 2014).


Australian intercountry adoption began in 1975 with ‘Operation Babylift’, when 292 children arrived in Australia, displaced by a war fought up and down the two small nations formerly known as North Vietnam and South Vietnam. America joined the fight as part of its mission to rid the world of communism. Australia was a worthy ally in this fight against communism, according to the Liberal Government of the time, although many Australians opposed Australia’s involvement, and were especially against conscripting young men to train as soldiers for the war effort. Regardless of which side of the political fence the 292 prospective parents sat, it is fair to say that they were wholly motivated to adopt the Vietnamese children to do good (Le 2005). There is evidence to suggest that the first babies brought out under intercountry adoption were those children displaced and orphaned by the Korean War in the 1950s, a war on foreign soil that Australia participated in, in support of its ally, the USA (Department of Human Services 2014).


The children, some as young as ten days old, were transported in cardboard boxes in the holds of military aircraft. A few of the children did not make it, dying on the tarmac or during the flight to their new country. ‘My parents felt they had a civic duty mainly because of the images from the Vietnam War,’ one of those babies, Tyler Robertson, said about his parents’ response to the images of horror flooding into homes as part of the first televised war. ‘The graphic nature of some of those photos just compelled them to do something’ (Wilmoth 2004).


It is ironic that the troops Australia sent, doubtless contributed to the problem of orphaned children, either through the direct killing of their parents and families, or by the impregnation of local women. Although some women kept their babies, many were abandoned, perhaps through the repugnance of rape, the shame of mixed ethnicity or because of family embarrassment and disapproval.


In the last decade, 3300 children have been brought to Australia from countries as disparate as Guatemala, South Korea, Romania and India (Attorney-General’s Department 2014). The alternatives to satisfy consumer demand including baby trafficking, slavery, enforced surrogacy and the many other illegal ways that babies find their way around the modern world, is in no way preferable to intercountry adoption. Australians evidently did not need celebrities Mia Farrow and Madonna, both serial intercountry adopters, to popularise this practice.


The Australian Attorney General’s website states, ‘Australia is party to the 1995 Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. It establishes principles to ensure that intercountry adoptions occur only where it is in the best interest of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights’ (Attorney General’s Department 2014).



Which brings us to the practice of surrogacy in Australia. In May 1988 Australia’s first surrogate baby, Alice Kirkham, was born to her aunt as a result of in vitro fertilisation (IVF), a procedure developed by a Monash University team, headed by Professor Carl Woods. Alice’s aunt, Linda, and women like her who are impregnated with an embryo not conceived from their ovum and carry to full term, are known as ‘gestational’ and/or ‘altruistic’ surrogates. Regarding the discourse, Verrier (1993) argues that we have got the labels wrong, claiming that the woman who gives birth is the real mother, the woman to whom the child is given is the surrogate.


Renate Klein (2011, p.23) presents a view at variance with the notion of ‘altruistic surrogacy’, claiming that:


This was a two-sisters surrogacy – Linda and Maggie Kirkman and the resulting baby Alice – in which power differences between the two women were extraordinarily stark: Maggie was the glamorous and well spoken woman of the world; Linda who carried the baby, was the demure school teacher in child-like frocks and pig tails.


Linda Kirkham contradicts this view, claiming that she welcomed the chance to try out new technology and use her body for altruistic purposes (Kirkham 2013). Since Alice’s arrival, documented enthusiastically at the time in news programs and magazines, many Australian children have been born as a result of altruistic surrogacy and some, like Alice, may be extremely well versed in how they came about (Kirkham, Kirkham & Kirkham 2014). Others however, may not have a clear idea of their origins. Available research about adoptees’ experiences shows that late discovery of how they were conceived and born usually results in anger and distrust of family members (Quartly, Swain & Cuthbert 2013; Schalfrig 2010). There is no data about the ongoing psychological effects for children born as a result of donor gamete(s) who, as adolescents or adults, stumble upon the truth about their birth, just as there is no Australian data about how many children born to surrogates are made aware of their beginnings. Indeed there is no Australian data as to how many children are born to surrogates, fullstop. There is wide agreement that it is a basic human right to know who your parents are and where you came from, however in Australia laws relating to minors’ right to know their origins do not exist. It is reasonable to extrapolate that the same distrust experienced by adoptees, would be felt by people born of surrogates and donor gametes, who are not told of their origins from an early age.


I wonder about how twins born to an anonymous blogger who carried embryos conceived from her brother’s and his wife’s gametes, will feel about the circumstances of their gestation and birth. The altruistic blogger wrote of the twins, a few weeks after their birth: ‘They will never know what it cost me to give them up, but I know. I went this week to help with the six o’clock feed. The little girl was crying, so I picked her up and cuddled her. She quietened and fell asleep. “Do you think she remembers me?” I asked. Jane looked up, holding the other twin. “Of course,” she said’ (Anonymous 2013).


It is common to express naïve views about what babies ‘know’ and ‘feel’. Nancy Verrier, relying on research conducted by David Chamberlain (1988), asserts that babies know their mother at a primal level through being inside her for the entirety of their life, listening to her voice, smelling her smell, touching her. Verrier (1993) argues that abandonment by the mother is felt as both emotional and physical pain by the newborn infant, a pain that does not dissipate quickly. Catherine Swinden, born in Adelaide in 1944 to an unmarried 22-year-old woman, relates her experience of being removed from her birth mother. Catherine’s birth weight dropped alarmingly when she was taken from her mother at three weeks old, necessitating another four weeks in hospital to stabilise her health before she was able to travel with her adopting mother to Sydney. Swinden (1983, pp.131-2) describes her pain, which she ascribes to grief:


We travelled in a troop plane and throughout the twelve-hour flight, I believe I cried inconsolably. This crying continued, without respite, until I was eight months old even though my adoptive mother persevered with her loving concern for my well-being. Recovery from my mourning stage is indicated in photographs taken of me at around one year looking fat and contented.


And Klein (2011, p.23) makes similar claims when writing about the Kirkhams:


Their IVF doctor applauded altruistic surrogacy. He called it ‘gestational surrogacy’ and proclaimed that if the so-called surrogate mother didn’t use her own eggs, thus wasn’t the baby’s ‘genetic’ mother, no attachment would ensue! This statement is haunting us to this day. It is patently absurd: as a baby grows in a woman’s body over the nine months of the pregnancy, it is hard to see why the 24/7 presence of the baby inside her body, its growth, its interaction with her (movements, the baby’s kicking) would be any different whether s/he has the mother’s genes!


In Australia there are laws forbidding commercial surrogacy, but with Asia on its doorstep, it appears simple enough for Australians to locate willing gestational women in India, Thailand, Cambodia and other developing nations who, for a fee (and it seems usual that the largest portions of this fee goes to an ‘agent’ and a ‘middle man’), agree to embryo implantation, carrying a pregnancy to full-term and relinquishing the baby or babies shortly after birth. There seems to be no shortage of poor women around the globe who will gestate children in exchange for much needed money if they are to better their lives. This is not surprising given the increasing divide between the world’s richest and poorest (Directorate for Employment Labour and Social Affairs 2014; World Bank 2014).


Moody-Adams (1991) argued 25 years ago that ‘Human history reminds us that we have not yet experienced a society that consistently accords respect to all persons’, worth contemplating when it was discovered that Baby Gammy’s father is a convicted child sex offender. Other cases have come to light involving surrogate children subjected to paedophilia, such as the Australians convicted of pimping out their surrogate ‘son’ to an international clientele (Ralston 2013), and the recent case of a 24-year-old Japanese businessman who managed to acquire sixteen babies through surrogacy (Rawlinson 2014). Sheila Jeffreys (2014) argues that surrogacy is just another form of human trafficking and must be ended. Her argument, based on the commercialisation of babies made possible by reproductive technologies, is cogent in reference to both the rights of children who have little or no protection afforded by the law and can be abandoned or sold on to the highest bidder, as well as to the women whose wombs are now part of infrastructure for profit seeking entrepreneurs.



The rights of children have long been enshrined as ‘paramount’ in Australian laws: the Family Law Act 1975 Section 60CA sets out that parenting plans must be made in a child’s best interests; the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified by the Australian Government in 1990; each state and territory has charters setting out children’s rights, yet as history shows, in practice this has not been achieved. The many reasons for taking children away from their birth mothers, including a family’s inability to care for a child due to poverty and illness, the stigma of illegitimacy for baby and mother alike, and the need to assimilate mixed race Aborigines into ‘white’ Australia, have all been couched in language that puts the child’s ‘best interests’ foremost. The lessons learnt from past practice are reflected in laws that give adopted children and those born from assisted reproductive technologies, including those children born as a result of donated gametes, access to some information about their beginnings. This is a positive step. Yet it is still not mandatory for the father’s name to be recorded on a child’s birth certificate or the donor’s name to be recorded, so the child may trace their biological mother or father at a later date. Children are still being removed from their culture and heritage through intercountry adoption, regardless of the lessons learnt from The Stolen Generations’ experiences. Altruistic surrogacy arrangements are carefully managed in Australia, but there are limitations to the ways in which Australian authorities can place controls around Australians seeking international commercial surrogacy arrangements. It is too early to say what the effects for these children might be in the future. But history does show that for people who have been nurtured in a womb by someone whom they do not know as ‘mother’, the challenge has always been to quieten their aching hearts.




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Image: Children seated and standing in rows: “Stolen Generation Children Kahlin Compound”, Northern Territory Library, Peter Spillett Collection, published 1921, courtesy Australians Together.