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October 01st 2011 print

Kevin McGovern

Adoption is Better than Abortion

In 2009–10, there were at least 80,000 abortions in Australia—and sixty-one local adoptions. We should be at once amazed, outraged and energised by this statistic. For most of the twentieth century, adoption provided a pretty good outcome when a girl or woman became pregnant and yet for various reasons was unable to keep and raise her child. Why are there now so few adoptions? And indeed, why has adoption become in mainstream culture such a dirty word?

As well as killing an unborn child, we now know that abortion harms many women, causing such problems as “higher rates of suicide, depression, adjustment disorders, anxiety, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, and psychiatric hospitalization”.[1] But despite this, why does abortion persist in mainstream culture as almost the only answer when a girl or woman becomes pregnant and is unable to keep and raise the child? And if we talk about forced adoption in the 1970s, should we also talk about forced abortion now?

This is a critical time. There is a renewed focus on both abortion and adoption in our society. As regards abortion, this focus is especially on the harm which abortion does to women. As regards adoption, there is currently a Senate inquiry into former forced adoption practices in Australia. Its report is due on November 21 this year.

In popular culture, adoption has been explored in a number of recent movies. Mother and Child is a sometimes harrowing dramatisation of the harms of forced and closed adoption. The Waiting City illustrates how a couple truly become parents through inter-country adoption. Interestingly, the adoptive mother Fiona reveals that, because the time wasn’t right, she had aborted the couple’s first child—not suspecting that they would be unable to have any more children.

The new Australian film Oranges and Sunshine is a disturbing account of the “Lost Innocents”, the British child migrants sent to Australia in the second half of the twentieth century. The Canadian film Incendies moves from forced adoption through some terrible consequences to a message about “letting go of anger” and the importance of “being together”.

Yet another movie, Juno, is about open adoption US-style (where in some states the relinquishing mother interviews and chooses the adopting parents). On her way to an abortion clinic, sixteen-year-old Juno is told by her classmate Su Chin that “All babies want to get borned.” This and Juno’s own sense of right and wrong deter her from abortion, and the movie is about her selection of adoptive parents for her child. Writing about this movie, social commentator Bettina Arndt observed that adoption has “dropped off the list of choices for dealing with unwanted pregnancy”. Believing that adoption “will be the right decision for some women”, she hopes that Juno “may open women’s eyes to that possibility”.[2] 

The Rise of Adoption in the Twentieth Century

Adoption has existed since the dawn of time, and most societies throughout history have had laws and customs to regulate the practice. The modern period of adoption began with legislation passed in Massachusetts in 1851. At the time, giving birth outside wedlock greatly stigmatised both the woman and her child. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many women escaped this stigma by abandoning or even killing their child. One reason for the Massachusetts law, therefore, was to provide an alternative to infanticide. This statute became the model for similar laws around the world. In this country, the first wave of adoption legislation led to laws in Western Australia (1896), Tasmania (1920), New South Wales (1923), South Australia (1926), Victoria (1928) and Queensland (1935).

Throughout the twentieth century, adoption took different forms in response to contemporary concerns. In the 1920s and 1930s, most adoptions occurred when children were between twelve and eighteen months old. The fear in this era was that these children might have inherited defects from their parents, who were regarded as morally and intellectually inferior. This delayed adoption was from an institution. It meant that adoptive parents could also be assured that this child was meeting the usual developmental milestones.

In the 1930s, a rise in the extra-nuptial birth rate meant that there were more babies for adoption. Several churches in Australia opened maternity homes for unwed mothers, and this involvement of the churches in the process of adoption increased its social acceptability. At the same time, the first generation of adopted children had grown up. Oswald Barnett’s book Would You Adopt a Child? was a scientific study of the first hundred children adopted from the Methodist Babies Home in Melbourne. It revealed happy, normal children whose adoptive parents were delighted by them.

By the 1940s, there was general social acceptance of adoption as a good solution after extra-nuptial birth. By this time, children were usually adopted soon after birth. The peak of adoption activity in Australia is generally regarded as extending from the end of the Second World War in 1945 until the mid-1970s. There was still great social stigma associated with giving birth outside wedlock. At the same time, changing social mores, particularly from the 1960s, greatly increased the number of such births. From the end of the First World War to the mid-1970s, about 300,000 Australian children were adopted. The highest number of adoptions in Australia in a single year was 9798 in 1971–72. About 4800 of these were “relative adoptions”. In most of these, a woman with children married, and her new husband adopted her existing children. However, about 4997 were “non-relative adoptions”, in which children were adopted by a married couple previously unknown to them.[3]

There was a second wave of adoption legislation in Australia in the 1960s. This included laws in Victoria and Queensland (1964), New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory (1965), South Australia (1967) and Tasmania (1968). These new laws enshrined the principles of secrecy and a clean break from the past. While at the time this was believed to be best for everyone, we now know that this practice harmed many relinquishing mothers and many of those adopted.

In this era, when a girl or young woman told her parents that she was pregnant, there was much upset within the family. In some cases, she quickly married the child’s father. In other cases, particularly from the 1970s, the child was aborted. In many cases, however, the girl or young woman was told to go away to somewhere where she was not known to have the baby. Unless her parents offered to raise the child, everyone—her family, her boyfriend if he was still on the scene, the churches, and health care professionals—told her that she should give the child up for adoption. Indeed, in this era before the supporting mother’s benefit, financial considerations alone meant that many of these women had no other realistic option. With all these pressures, adoption in this era is now rightly described as forced adoption.

Either formally or informally, hospitals in this era had different protocols for these unwed mothers. Their hospital records often carried a special code (such as “AB” for “adoption babe”). Birthing techniques which left a mark, such as caesareans, were avoided if at all possible. The child was taken away immediately after birth. Sometimes a screen was set up so the woman would not see her child at all. She may or may not have been told the sex of the child. And she was not supposed to see, hold or nurse the child afterwards. After signing the adoption papers, women were told to go home and pretend that the pregnancy had never happened.

The origin of these children was often kept secret from them at least until they were adults or when they were about to marry. If and when they were told, it was often a shock which left them disturbed and unsettled. And often, if they sought information about their birth parents, they found that records were either non-existent or sealed. With good reason, this form of adoption is called closed adoption. It was harmful to many but not all relinquishing mothers, and many but not all adoptees.[4]

There are four groups from this period whom we should particularly note. While many in some of these groups were not adopted, they are relevant to our discussion as children who were not raised by their biological parents. The first group is the Stolen Generations. These are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With many records destroyed, there has been much debate about both the motivation for this practice and the numbers of children involved. It is clear, however, that the practice was motivated at least in part by false racist beliefs such as that indigenous women were not good mothers, and false eugenic beliefs such as that the best future particularly for children of mixed descent was assimilation into white society. While some put the figure much lower, it is likely that between 20,000 and 100,000 indigenous children were removed.[5]

A second group is the Forgotten Australians. These are the 500,000 or so Australians who were placed in institutional or other out-of-home care in the twentieth century. Almost all of these children suffered from a lack of love, affection and nurturing as they grew. Many also suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse, including criminal physical and sexual assault.

A third group is the Lost Innocents, the 10,000 or so British child migrants sent to Australia in the twentieth century. Their experience in institutional or out-of-home care was similar to that of the Forgotten Australians.[6]

A final group is the just less than 300 Vietnamese children who were evacuated to Australia and adopted during the closing days of the Vietnam War in April 1975 as part of an international Operation Babylift. Controversial even at the time, this was Australia’s first large-scale experience of what is now known as inter-country adoption.

The Decline of Adoption in the Twentieth Century

Despite many difficulties, between 1945 and 1970 at least 50 per cent of Australian unwed mothers kept their babies. This increased significantly when the Whitlam government introduced the supporting mother’s benefit in 1973. Thus, whereas there were about 4997 non-relative adoptions in Australia in 1971-72, there were only about 2748 in 1974-75.[7]

Throughout the 1970s, evidence accumulated around the world of the deep and persistent grief experienced by many relinquishing mothers, and the sense of dislocation and loss experienced by many adoptees. In Australia, a grassroots movement developed. It offered support, validation of these deep emotions, networking, and practical advice about how to find a lost child or a lost birth mother. There were national adoption conferences in 1976, 1978 and 1982. These conferences also provided a national platform for indigenous people to express their concerns about the Stolen Generations. Political advocacy also developed as the movement called for recognition and for much-needed reforms.

What was arguably the first methodologically sound study anywhere in the world of the effects of relinquishment on the birth mother was published in 1984. Relinquishing Mothers: Their Long-Term Adjustment by West Australian psychologists Robin Winkler and Margaret van Keppel used a theoretical framework to generate hypotheses which were then tested in their research. They recruited 213 relinquishing mothers, and each completed a comprehensive questionnaire. The study yielded both quantitative and qualitative results, which are thoroughly detailed in a 100-page report.

Of these relinquishing mothers, 46 per cent reported an increasing sense of loss over periods of up to thirty years, with the sense of loss being more intense at particular times such as birthdays, milestones in their child’s life, and Mother’s Day. Another 5 per cent said that their sense of loss had remained much the same. On the other hand, 37 per cent reported that their sense of loss had weakened over time, and 11 per cent said it had disappeared. Compared to a carefully matched comparison group, relinquishing mothers had significantly more problems of psychological adjustment. Both social support and the opportunity to talk through their feelings lessened the effects of relinquishment. Many relinquishing mothers expressed the clear view that their sense of loss and their problems of adjustment would be eased by knowledge of what had happened to their child.[8]

For our purposes here, it is useful also to summarise what this report noted about the effects on a mother of the death of her child either just before or just after birth. These include somatic complaints such as sleep disturbances, inappropriate cognitions such as a preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased, a wide variety of extreme emotional responses including grief and anger, and disturbed behaviour including both apathy and compulsive overactivity. In one study, 21 per cent of mothers were identified as having a marked deterioration in health after their baby’s death. In another study, a third of the mothers developed serious symptoms including psychosis, anxiety attacks, obsessive thoughts, and deep depression.[9]

Let us return to our account of forced and closed adoption, the Stolen Generations, the Forgotten Australians and the Lost Innocents. Building on the work of many people, awareness of the harmful effects of these past injustices continues to be disseminated. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s 524-page Bringing Them Home report on the Stolen Generations was released in April 1997. In December 2000, the 245-page report of the New South Wales Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues, Releasing the Past: Adoption Practices 1950–1998, was issued. The 336-page report on child migration by the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, Lost Innocents: Righting the Record, was released in August 2001. The 438-page report, also by the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, titled Forgotten Australians was released in August 2004. After apologies by state and territory governments between 1997 and 2001, on February 13, 2008, there was a national apology to Australia’s indigenous peoples moved by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and passed unanimously by both Houses of Parliament. On November 16, 2009, there was a national apology to the Forgotten Australians and the Lost Innocents again moved by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and tabled in both Houses of Parliament.[10]

There is still much unfinished business here. Organisations such as the Association of Relinquishing Mothers (ARMS), Adoption Loss Adult Support (ALAS), Origins, Jigsaw and Vanish continue to support and advocate for those affected by forced and closed adoption.[11] While there is currently a national inquiry into forced adoption, there has not been a national apology. On June 9, 2009, the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH) became the first Australian hospital to offer a formal letter of apology to women who were hurt by the forced adoption practices of the past. This apology is now on permanent display at the RBWH. On October 19, 2010, the government of Western Australia became the first Australian state or territory government to move a formal motion of apology “to the mothers, their children and the families who were adversely affected by past adoption practices”. So many women and their families attended from across Australia that the public gallery, the Speaker’s gallery and other rooms adjacent to the parliamentary chambers were full to capacity. Nine very personal and moving speeches were delivered by parliamentarians. Health Minister Kim Hames acknowledged that this apology would not remove the suffering that many people endured. Speaking to the mothers, however, Mr Hames insisted that the apology “will say to the world that you did not give your child away because you did not want that child”, and that “we, the Government of Western Australia, recognise that your child was removed from you under a policy and social attitude that was badly flawed”.[12]

The current national inquiry into forced adoption is being conducted by the Senate’s Community Affairs References Committee. The Senate referred this matter to its Committee on November 15, 2010—not long after the West Australian apology. The committee has held public hearings in Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. To date, it has received over 300 submissions, many of which are very sad accounts of the sufferings of both relinquishing mothers (and some fathers) and relinquished children. Such an extensive response to this inquiry demonstrates the need to provide people with opportunities to tell their story, for that story to be heard by the appropriate authorities, and for an official response which acknowledges the harm done and also offers avenues and resources for healing. The report of this committee is due on November 21. Perhaps among other things it will recommend a national apology. The healing achieved by the RBWH and West Australian apologies along with the involvement of so many people in the national inquiry strengthens the case for a national apology to all those harmed by forced and closed adoption.

Concerns about abortion

At least until the 1970s, adoption was generally regarded as the best solution in those situations where a woman was pregnant and for various reasons unable to keep the child. Nowadays, this opinion has changed, and it is sadly clear that most Australians now regard abortion as the best solution in these circumstances. The 80,000 abortions in Australia every year represent one abortion for every four live births. As many as one in three Australian women has at least one abortion.

In recent years, however, there has been increasing concern about the effects of abortion, not only on the unborn child but also on the woman who has the abortion. Selena Ewing from Women’s Forum Australia has examined all the articles about abortion in peer-reviewed journals over the last fifteen years. From this comprehensive review of 168 articles, she concluded that there is “substantial evidence of psychological harm associated with abortion”. She wrote:

  • Abortion results in short-term relief for most women, usually accompanied by negative emotions. Such relief tends to be transient.
  • 10 to 20 per cent of women suffer from severe negative psychological complications after abortion, despite the frequent presence of relief soon after the abortion.
  • Many more women experience emotional distress immediately after the abortion and in the months following. Women experience a range of negative emotions after abortion including sadness, loneliness, shame, guilt, grief, doubt and regret.
  • Depression and anxiety are experienced by substantial numbers of women after abortion.
  • For a small proportion of women, abortion triggers post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • After abortion women have an increased risk of psychiatric problems including bipolar disorder, neurotic depression, depressive psychosis and schizophrenia.
  • Women who have experienced abortion also have an increased risk of substance abuse and self-harm. This is particularly true during a subsequent pregnancy.[13]

Towards a Reappraisal of Adoption

In The Many-Sided Triangle, experienced Australian adoption service providers Audrey Marshall and Margaret McDonald argue convincingly that both the attitude to adoption in mainstream culture and the practices of some service providers ten years ago have been unduly influenced by the negative experiences of relinquishing mothers and adopted children as discussed above. They beg, however, that as we consider what is best to do for children, “we cannot just discard from the choices such a tried and proven alternative as adoption”.[14]

Perhaps because of these popular attitudes, nowadays there are relatively few adoptions in Australia. Statistics now report on inter-country adoptions, known child adoptions (in which an Australian child is adopted by a step-parent, another relative, or his or her foster-parents or other carers), and local adoptions (in which an Australian child is adopted by parents who have had no previous contact with the child). The most recent statistics are for 2009-10. In that year, there were a total of 412 adoptions throughout Australia. These included 222 inter-country adoptions, 129 known child adoptions, and sixty-one local adoptions. The total number of adoptions in Australia has remained relatively stable since the late 1990s, at around 400 to 600 children a year.[15]

Australian couples often consider inter-country adoption because there are so few Australian children for adoption. They must apply to the appropriate governmental agency in their state or territory—or in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania they may instead apply to an approved non-governmental adoption service provider. They have to satisfy certain criteria (which vary somewhat across the jurisdictions). If they are successful, the process may take two or three years or even longer. The cost could be $30,000 or more, which covers processing costs both here and overseas, airfares and other expenses.[16]

The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoptions was concluded in May 1993 and came into force in May 1995. It establishes standards and procedures to ensure that inter-country adoption is in the best interests of the child. After Australia ratified the Convention in August 1998, it came into force in this country in December 1998. While Australia has inter-country adoption programs with both Hague and some non-Hague countries, it requires that the standards and procedures of the Convention be followed in every case.

In 2009-10, just over 80 per cent of Australia’s inter-country adoptions came from Asia; another 15 per cent came from Africa; and smaller numbers came from South and Central America and elsewhere. Almost two-thirds of inter-country adoptions came from four countries: the Philippines (22 per cent), Ethiopia (15 per cent), China (14 per cent) and South Korea (14 per cent).[17]

One concern about inter-country adoption is that in some countries unwed mothers may be virtually forced by their circumstances to relinquish their child. These situations must be remedied to ensure that women overseas do not suffer as Australian women have done after forced adoption.

From the late 1990s, there has been an international reappraisal of the place for adoption in those situations where parents have repeatedly demonstrated that they are unable to care for their children (often because of drug addiction or other problems). In the past, these children experienced serial foster-care placements in the hope that eventually their parents would be able to care for them again. These serial placements proved very harmful for children, who need stability during the crucial years of early childhood development.

Thus, in 1996 US President Bill Clinton issued an executive memorandum seeking to increase adoptions in order to provide chronically neglected children with a permanent home. The 1997 US Adoption and Safe Families Act requires with very limited exceptions that if a child has been in foster care for fifteen of the previous twenty-two months, the state welfare agencies must initiate legal action to terminate parental rights, and at the same time seek potential adoptive families.

In February 2000, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair committed his government to a review of adoption. The White Paper Adoption—A New Approach and the 2002 UK Adoption and Children Act expedites the welfare and legal processes in order to provide permanence and a fresh start to those children whose parents are unable to care for them.

The Australian reappraisal of adoption began with the 256-page 2005 report Overseas Adoption in Australia by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services. After extensive consultation, the committee declared itself “unequivocally in support of inter-country adoptions”. At the same time, it noted a “general lack of support for adoption—both local and inter-country—in most of the state and territory welfare departments”. Indeed, departmental attitudes ranged “from indifference to hostility”, and in many cases “potentially relinquishing mothers” were “likely to be counselled against giving up their child for adoption”. Such attitudes surely arose because of past adoption practices. However, the committee noted that these “past social attitudes and practices” now no longer existed. The committee was particularly concerned about the effects of these attitudes in child protection cases. As they noted, “This has led to tens of thousands of children being placed in foster care and other forms of out-of-home care when adoption could well have been in their best interests.” The committee called for reform of this “anti-adoption culture” and increased support for both inter-country and local adoption.[18]

This advice was repeated even more strongly in the 407-page 2007 report The Winnable War on Drugs: The Impact of Illicit Drug Use on Families, also by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services. Its fifth recommendation is “a national adoption strategy which acknowledges that … adoption is a desirable way of providing a stable life for a significant proportion of children with drug-addicted parents” and establishing adoption “as the ‘default’ care option for children aged 0–5 years where the child protection notification involved illicit drug use by the parent/s”.[19]

Since the 1970s, there has been around Australia a third wave and in some jurisdictions arguably even a fourth wave of adoption legislation.[20] This new state and territory legislation shares at least four common features:

First, there is much emphasis on ensuring free and informed consent from a relinquishing mother or relinquishing parents. Over a series of meetings, an adoption counsellor will give the mother or parents complete information about other possible options for their child’s care, the possible psychological effects of adoption—both short-term and long-term—for both parents and child; the adoption process and its legal effects, and so on. This is usually supplemented with written information,[21] and the adoption counsellor must confirm that the parents truly understand the information. Parents must wait for a period after birth before relinquishing their child, and there is then a period in which this consent can be revoked. (The child may be placed in foster care during this entire period, but the birth parents are able to visit at any time.) In Victoria, for example, a child cannot be relinquished until sixteen days after its birth. The mother is then free to change her mind for the next twenty-eight days—and this period can be extended by another fourteen days if she is still uncertain.

Second, there is a strong preference for open adoption, which is sometimes also called access adoption. This means that the child knows that he or she is adopted, and that there is continued communication and access between the adoptive parents, the birth parents and the child. Information exchange might include photographs, letters, school reports and so on sent between the adoptive parents, the birth parents and the child. Access might be a meeting between the birth mother, the adoptive parents and the child for a few hours in a neutral place maybe several times a year. Birth parents may opt out from either or both information and access. If, however, they later change their mind, they are then able to re-negotiate either information or access or both.

In 2009-10, 92 per cent of local adoptions were open with arrangements for information, access or both. In the remaining 8 per cent (five out of sixty-one adoptions), the birth parents had requested no contact or information between them and the adopting family.[22]

Third, adoption is facilitated by an adoption plan. In an adoption plan, the birth mother or parents are able to express their wishes about the type of couple who will adopt their child (such as the couple’s religion, race and ethnic background), what information and access will be provided, and so on. In some jurisdictions, the birth parents are able to express a preference after considering a short list of descriptions of potential adoptive families, or to meet the family who are selected before the placement of their child.

In Australia, adoption by same-sex couples is permitted by the laws of the Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia and New South Wales. However, adoption agencies usually respect the requests of birth mothers or birth parents about the type of family who adopts their child. The New South Wales Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Act 2010 explicitly states that birth parents can specify “the preferred background, beliefs or domestic relationship” of adoptive parents, and that adoption agencies should seek adoptive parents who reflect those wishes.

Fourth, all states and territories follow the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle. This means that the first preference for the placement of an indigenous child outside their immediate family is with their extended family. If this is not possible, the next preferences are within that child’s indigenous community, and then with other indigenous people. Three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were adopted in 2009-10, with a total of sixty-three over the last fifteen years.[23] 

Open Adoption is Better

In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah asks, “Can a woman forget her baby, or a mother the child within her womb?” The short answer is: as a general rule, no. In this article, we have looked at the psychological consequences for many women of the death of their child near birth, and of closed adoption and abortion. These consequences are actually quite similar, and they jointly remind us of the profound connection between women and their children. The Melbourne psychologist Jennifer Rice, speaking about closed adoption, observed that “there is pre-natal bonding in many cases between a woman and a foetus. And even if she knows that she’s going to relinquish that child, the body remembers, in a sense, the presence of the child.”[24] This is just as true after perinatal death and after abortion.

Because of this profound connection, the best outcome even for unplanned pregnancy is any solution which allows the mother to keep and raise her child. As throughout history, many girls and women continue to do this.[25] In some cases they are able to do so together with the child’s father; in other cases, this is not possible. It is entirely right and proper that our governments provide benefits to help women keep their children, and that we as a society encourage and support them to do so.

In some cases, this is simply not possible. In these cases, because of the profound connection between mother and child, the best outcome is any solution which allows the woman as much continuing contact as possible with her child. Closed adoption did not do this. Abortion can never do this. But open or access adoption can. This is why in those situations where the mother cannot keep her child, the next best solution is freely chosen, open adoption. It is better for the woman who is still able at least sometimes to see her child, and to be there as her child grows and develops. And the child, instead of being killed, is able to enjoy the many opportunities of life. The evidence is that children almost always do well in adoption. While adoption at an early age produces the best benefits, almost all children benefit.[26] For both the woman and her child, freely chosen, open adoption is simply better than abortion.

Sadly, far too many biological fathers simply absent themselves from these situations. When the father remains involved, open adoption offers him options too for continued contact. Such contact can also be very good for the adopted child.

Of course, open adoption is not an easy choice for a pregnant woman. She must do two hard things. In an era where abortion is sadly so readily available, she must carry her child to term. And when her child is born, she must recognise that she really cannot care for the child, and she must give the child to another family who can. In one of the Harry Potter movies, Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore observed that “we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy”. This observation recognises that what is right is often not easy—and that what is easy is often not right. In the short term—during the pregnancy and immediately afterwards—the choice for open adoption is not easy. But in the long term—in the many years that lie ahead—the choice for open adoption is right for the woman and for her child. The short-term pain is justified by the long-term gain.

Nowadays, when girls and women must decide what to do about an unplanned pregnancy, it seems that for many of them adoption is something they dismiss almost without consideration. In other words, their choice quickly becomes either keeping the child or having an abortion. Is it not strange that killing an unborn child seems a realistic option, whereas giving that child a chance at life does not? Is it because they do not know about open adoption? Is it because adoption asks hard things of them? Or is it because they are only deciding what they would like to do now, rather than thinking about what would be best both for themselves and their unborn child in the long term? It is strange too that abortion, which is known to harm women, seems a realistic option, whereas open adoption which will allow them to continue to be part of their child’s life does not.

Pro-life groups including the Christian churches must accept some responsibility here. We have worked hard to counsel women and to offer them much practical, material and emotional support so they can keep and raise their unborn children. When this is not possible, however, perhaps we have not done enough to challenge the current negative attitude in our society towards adoption, or to present freely chosen, open adoption as an attractive, life-giving alternative to abortion.

Spreading the Message

If you believe as I do that open adoption is better than abortion, what can we do?

The first step is to understand this issue thoroughly ourselves, and to become really convinced about it. I hope that this article helps you to do this. Ultimately, the message is quite simple: when for whatever reason a girl or woman is not able to keep and raise her unborn child, freely chosen, open adoption is a better solution than abortion. It is better both for the woman and for the child.

The second step is to spread the word. Are you able to speak about this—perhaps to your family, or your friends, or your work colleagues? Are you able to write articles—short or long—to share this message, perhaps in church or pro-life newsletters or indeed anywhere else? Are there organisations where you or I could speak to pass on this idea?

As we do this, we will surely encounter people who have been hurt by forced and closed adoption—either as relinquishing mothers or as relinquished children. We should acknowledge how deeply they have been hurt, as I have tried to do here. But we might also try to explain that we are talking about very different things. We might say, “You are talking about forced and closed adoption. I am talking about freely chosen, open adoption. They’re really very different.” We might add that we believe open adoption is better than abortion: “After all, abortion is just like closed adoption, for both leave the mother completely without her child.” We might also talk about choice: “In your day, adoption was forced upon you. Nowadays, many women think they really have no choice except to abort. Wouldn’t it be better if women have a real chance to make an informed choice between abortion and freely chosen, open adoption?”

As we spread the word, we will also encounter girls and women who are making a decision about an unplanned pregnancy. We should suggest that they give themselves time to get over the initial shock, and that they speak with us and with their trusted advisers. We should also suggest that they try to remember their values throughout their life, rather than what might seem expedient in this time of crisis.

The best outcome is always that the woman is able to keep and raise her child. We should therefore seek first to offer practical, material and emotional support to assist a girl or woman in doing this.

If for whatever reason this is not possible, we should then ask them to consider freely chosen, open adoption. There are adoption agencies in every Australian state or territory. They all have websites, so a first step might be for the girl or woman to visit that website. A next step might be to phone and speak (either over the phone or face-to-face) with an adoption counsellor. Such an inquiry does not commit anyone to adoption, but it does provide more information for an informed choice. It will also show them that adoption counsellors are both warm and compassionate—and really concerned that whatever choice a girl or woman makes is free and informed.

Some girls and women will choose open adoption. It will not be easy, but they will sense that it is right. If they make this decision, they will give their child the gift of life—and they themselves will be part of that life. We should try to accompany and support them on this sometimes hard journey of decision. That might be life-giving for us as well as for them.

If we all do what we can, we will begin to bring about change. As the years progress, there will be fewer abortions in Australia, and many more freely chosen, open adoptions. Sixty-one local adoptions in 2009-10? Surely we can do much, much better than that! 

Rev Kevin McGovern is the Director of the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics, which is sponsored by the Catholic hospitals of Victoria.


[1] Theresa Burke and David C. Reardon, Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion Revised and Updated (Springfield, IL: Acorn Books, 2007), 44.

[2] Bettina Arndt, “Babies want to be born,” Herald Sun 4 February 2008.

[3] Robin Winkler and Margaret van Keppel, Relinquishing Mothers in Adoption: Their long-term adjustment (Melbourne: Institute of Family Studies, 1984), 5.

[4] Among the sources which I consulted to compile this history were the document cited above, and New South Wales Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues, Releasing the Past: Adoption Practices 1950-1998, p. 220, Parliament of New South Wales, http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/committee.nsf/0/56E4E53DFA16A023CA256CFD002A63BC; All in the Mind, “Secrets and lies: the untold story of adoption” (13 June 2009), ABC, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/allinthemind/stories/2009/2592972.htm; and Hindsight, “Tangled Web, Part I: The silence of consent” & “Tangled Web, Part II: the sound of dissent,” (15 and 22 November 2009), ABC, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/hindsight/stories/2009/2735245.htm & http://www.abc.net.au/rn/hindsight/stories/2009/2735331.htm

[5] For more, see Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (April 1997), AHRC, http://www.hreoc.gov.au/social_Justice/bth_report/report/index.html

[6] For more on the Lost Innocents and the Forgotten Australians, see Australian Senate Community Affairs References Committee, Lost Innocents: Righting the Record- Report on child migration (30 August 2001) and Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children (30 August 2004), Parliament of Australia, http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/clac_ctte/completed_inquiries/1999-02/child_migrat/report/index.htm & http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/clac_ctte/completed_inquiries/2004-07/inst_care/report/index.htm

[7] Winkler and van Keppel, 5.

[8] Ibid, 1, 39-50, 54, 58-69.

[9] Ibid, 10-11.

[10] For more on the State and Territory apologies, see http://www.hreoc.gov.au/social_justice/bth_report/apologies_states.html. For the texts of both National apologies, see http://www.aph.gov.au/house/rudd_speech.pdf & http://www.cyf.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/384828/transcript-of-prime-minister-kevin-rudd.pdf

[11] Association of Relinquishing Mothers http://www.armsvic.org.au/home; Adoption Loss Adult Support http://www.alasqld.com/; Origins http://www.originsnsw.com/index.html

[12] Parliament of Western Australia, Hansard 2010, PWA, http://www.parliament.wa.gov.au/web/newwebparl.nsf/iframewebpages/Hansard+-+Daily+Transcripts for 19 October 2010, 7881-7889.

[13] Selena Ewing, Women & Abortion: An Evidence Based Review (Women’s Forum Australia, 2005), 2.

[14] Audrey Marshall and Margaret McDonald, The Many-Sided Triangle: Adoption in Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001), 256.

[15] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Adoptions Australia 2009-10, p. 3, 12, AIHW,

http://www.aihw.gov.au/publications/cws/38/11957.pdf

[16] For the names and contact details of the various State and Territory agencies, as well as the assessment criteria in each jurisdiction, see Ibid, iv, 59-70.

[17] Ibid, vi, 50. For the Hague Convention, see Australian Government, http://www.ag.gov.au/www/agd/agd.nsf/Page/IntercountryAdoption_TheHagueconventiononintercountryAdoption. For more information about intercountry adoption in Australia, see Adoptions Australia 2009-10, 2-5, 16-18, 19-24, 48-53.

[18] House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services, Overseas Adoption in Australia (November 2005), ix, viii, 3, 5, viii-ix, 1, Australian Government, http://www.ag.gov.au/www/agd/agd.nsf/Page/IntercountryAdoption_OverseasAdoptioninAustraliareport

[19] House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services, The winnable war on drugs: The impact of illicit drug use on families (September 2007), xxii, Australian Government, http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/fhs/illicitdrugs/report.htm

[20] For a summary of the current State and Territory Acts and Regulations, see Adoptions Australia 2009-10, 59-75.

[21] See, for example, the accessible and comprehensive Victorian booklet at Victoria Government, http://www.cyf.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/307607/Information-parents-adoption.pdf

[22] Adoptions Australia 2009-2010, vi, 27, 55.

[23] Adoptions Australia 2009-10, vi, 31.

[24] All in the Mind.

[25] One example is Bernadette Black, Brave Little Bear: The inspirational story of a teenage mother (Australia: Inspire, 2006).

[26] See, for example, Patricia Morgan, Adoption and the Care of Children: The British and American Experience (London: IEC Health and Welfare Unit, 1998); David M. Fergusson and L. John Horwood, “Adoption and Adjustment in Adolescence,” Adoption & Fostering 22 (1998): 24-30; Patrick F. Fagan, Adoption Works Well: A Synthesis of the Literature, Family Research Council, http://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF10K39.pdf