Warning: content may be distressing to some readers.
When researching there are so many garden paths that one can take, it is a wonder anything ever gets finished. Alongside reading books about orphans and care experience in fiction, there is also research and the writing of the PhD novel. You may be researching one thing and accidentally stumble across another. So it was for me when I was campaigning some years ago for an Adoption Apology for mothers who were forced to give up their children in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; since then there has been some movement from Government which you can read about here.
On Thursday 21st March 2013, in Canberra, Australia — Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a moving national apology in Parliament to the thousands of unwed mothers who were forced by government policies to give up their babies for adoption over several decades. The committee could not estimate how many adoptions were forced but said they numbered in the thousands.
Here in the UK, the situation was no different. The era was one of intense discrimination and stigmatisation of women who had children outside of marriage. Tens of thousands of women sought the assistance of social services and religious institutions and gave birth in homes for unmarried mothers. These women were often subjected to humiliating, cruel and sometimes criminal practices designed to pressurise them into surrendering their new-born babies to the adoption market.
If you were in the United Kingdom unmarried, pregnant, and without the support of your family, the likelihood was that you would end up in a Mother and Baby home. These institutions were often run by the church or local government, sometimes a mixture of the two. If the figures for illegitimate births in 1952-1955 were 33,000, it seems likely that the total figure could be hundreds of thousands during the period 1950-1979. If we include the mothers, then we could be looking at many thousands more, who were affected by the stigma of illegitimacy, and the social and political policies of the day.
As well as the trauma of being rejected by their families, facing the prospect of having to give up their newborn child for adoption, being ritually humiliated and in some instances abused by the people who ran these homes, there were other worrying policies that were enforced by the British Medical Association (BMA).
During the fifties and sixties, in order to enter one of these Mother and Baby homes, the pregnant woman first had to undergo certain invasive medical tests. One of these was for gonorrhea. Having these tests meant getting a medical certificate, without one, the young mother-to-be would not be allowed to enter the home.
What were the reasons for these tests? According to a leading consultant Venereologist, and the Chief Medical Officer of Health at the time, Gonorrhoea, was on the increase in the late 1950s. Of course, a general medical examination of a pregnant woman entering a new establishment was necessary, but to test thousands of women for Gonorrhea – Syphilis, and other venereal diseases; were these necessary? Could it be that testing them for sexual diseases was just another way of demonising them? These unmarried women were often likened to prostitutes. Even more worrying was the testing of newborn babies for sexual diseases. Just as the mother needed a medical certificate to enter the Mother and Baby Home, so the newborn needed a certificate to leave, not with its mother but with its new adoptive parents.
Under Adoption Regulations at the time, the Adoption Act, 1958: The Adoption Agencies Regulations, 1959 – Serological Tests Before Adoption: infants who were to be adopted had to be tested for syphilis. ‘In cases in which there is no history of previous infection – blood tests from mother and baby, when the child is 6 weeks old, if negative, can in my opinion be regarded as a safe basis for adoption…I think the child should be kept under observation and my practice is Wasserman and Kahn[i] tests at 3 monthly intervals for 1½-2 years, then at six monthly intervals until the age of 3 years – one test at 4 years of age and one at 5 years.’[ii]
At the time, it was thought that if a mother’s Wasserman reaction was negative during the pregnancy this did not preclude syphilis in the offspring: and although the mother may transmit the infection while in the incubation period of syphilis or in the seronegative primary stage; it was possible that she could become infected during pregnancy.
The British Medical Association provided a list of venereologists who were willing to carry out examinations and tests on the pregnant mothers and the babies, once born.
‘In small infants it is difficult to obtain blood from the arm, but not from the heel…The blood flows freely and can be collected in a test-tube. 2ml of whole blood is sufficient. The clean cut made by the blade is practically painless; the bleeding soon stops when the tourniquet is removed…’[iii]
Although many members of the medical profession carried out these tests without question and even insisted the child should be brought back for further tests, there was some concern about the way the tests were carried out. The Wasserman test involved obtaining sufficient blood from a small baby, the organising Secretary for Moral Welfare in the Diocese of Southwell at the time, observed, ‘…only a specialist will undertake venous puncture in the skull’.[iv] The Shrewsbury Diocesan Children’s Rescue Society, one of the adoption agencies of the time, was also concerned, ‘In one case recently, the Doctor inflicted sixteen pricks in vain, with the resulting upset to the child and children concerned.’[v]
A pathologist from Warrington, D.G. Miller, refused to do the test, saying: ‘I do not consider it justified to attempt to extract from so small an infant the relatively large amount of blood necessary for this test. The procedure is not without risk and unless it is essential to save life, I will not do it.’[vi]
It’s questionable if taking blood from an infant’s foot is dangerous, but it appears that many hospitals did not know how to extract the blood properly.
‘Kidderminster General Hospital refused to take blood from any young baby, they tell us that it is dangerous, as it must be taken from a jugular vein. They will not consider a heel stab which all the other hospitals in our County and Diocese use.’[vii]
Other adoption societies wrote to say they had no difficulty in getting their medical certificates completed and blood tests carried out, their babies, coming from ‘Mother and Baby Homes’, all over the country. These adoption societies often gave the new adoptive parents a letter when they received the newborn baby to be passed to their doctor. This suggested that the baby be taken for another Wasserman test at three months.
There was so much doubt about the tests, both the need for the test and how to obtain the blood, that articles were published by Mr Ambrose King in the Lancet[viii] and by Dr Hilda Lewis in the British Medical Journal[ix].
And in some instances, the Organising Secretaries of the Mother and Baby Homes were most surprised at the idea of testing for gonococcal infection, it was felt that “their girls” were not the promiscuous type and were seldom, if ever, infected. Some went even further, ‘Why single out unmarried mothers? Why should not all mothers have this examination?’ And in the Northampton area, apparently: ‘The offer also to take samples of blood for those babies to be placed for adoption did not act as the “selling point”, that the General Secretary, of the Church Assembly Board for Social Responsibility, Church of England Moral Welfare Council, had hoped.’
Indeed, they said the test was valueless at six weeks, as it was useless to take blood before the child was three and half months.
What is even more puzzling is the many reports that claimed gonorrhoea was on the increase, whereas in fact, it was in decline, figures for 1957-1958 showed ‘that very few of these unmarried mothers are, in fact, infected.’[x] As an example, in 1958, figures from the Department of Public Health in Bristol, showed that of the total of new unmarried mothers, 178, who attended a ‘special’ diagnostic clinic only two actually had Gonorrhea.[xi]
If Venereal Disease was on the wain, and the test results on newborn babies were useless, what was the point of these tests? Why traumatise new-born babies from loss of blood, bruised and bloodied arms, feet and even heads (where apparently the veins are more visible). It seems the whole idea of sexual-disease-free certificates had only one ulterior use. Government officials, together with adoption agencies, devised a scheme whereby a newborn baby that was put up for adoption could be handed over to the prospective parents whilst clutching its newly printed medical certificate, presumably to reassure them that the baby was clean and had no ‘bad-blood’ coursing through its veins and came from good stock.
Since writing this research there has been even more movement for a UK Adoption Apology. The Joint Committee on Human Rights launches a new inquiry to understand the experiences of unmarried women whose children were taken and adopted between 1949 and 1976.
The inquiry will examine whether adoption processes respected the human rights, as we understand them now, of the mothers and children who experienced them, as well as the lasting consequences on their lives.
Launching the inquiry, Committee Chair Harriet Harman QC MP said: “Everyone has the right to family life. The Joint Committee on Human Rights will look at whether the right to family life of young unmarried mothers and their children was respected in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. We have launched this inquiry to understand the realities of what the adoption process was like at that time and hear the experiences of those who went through it. The adoptions took place decades ago, but the pain and suffering remains today.”
The inquiry will cover a range of practices that led to the children of unmarried mothers being adopted. The scope of the inquiry will specifically cover issues arising from cases which took place during the time period between the Adoption of Children Act 1949 and the Adoption Act 1976.
- Inquiry: The right to family life: adoption of children of unmarried women 1949-1976
- Joint Committee on Human Rights
[i] Test for syphilis. Kahn’s test is faster and simpler than the Wassermann test – which required a two-day incubation period – and can be completed in a matter of minutes. However, it can also be inaccurate and show false positive and negative results.