Newspapers – and particularly television – last week had another of their nauseous wallows in lachrymose sentimentality at the latest manifestation of the “sorry” cult. The Prime Minister led apologies to parents and children affected by past forced adoption practices by churches, charities and governments in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. That this was essentially a tribal corroboree of political correctness without a didgeridoo was proved by the ill-mannered outburst at Tony Abbott’s reference to “birth mothers.” Unfortunately, Abbott rescinded the important point he had made by his subsequent apology.
Aborigines, the inmates of the Parramatta Girls Home, the Fairbridge Farm School boys, and now the fallen women of a bygone era – have we yet exhausted the list of unfortunates to whom we must bow our heads in shame? This habitual genuflection to our oh-so-worthy modern scruples has become a cancerous sore on the body politic. Once a target for vilification has been identified – usually the welfare policy of an earlier century, and especially if the charitable missionary activity of a church is involved – historical context is swept aside in a tidal flow of sentimentality that nobody, and particularly no politician can stand against.
But just how do these cathartic displays of orchestrated regret benefit the nation? Does the ability to publicly claim and proclaim half a century of “traumatic damage” really do these people any good? Or is this phenomenon merely an insidious part of the cultural slide towards refusing responsibility, embracing welfare dependency, demanding reparations for life’s bad deals? Is this the end of the “Get over it!” attitude that energised pioneers and soldiers, and ordinary families lived with, proud in their independence?
Julia Gillard said: “By saying ‘sorry’ we can correct the historical record.” Not so.
These “sorry” days distort history and thus betray our children. Just as the extravagantly emotional language of the Wilson Report has ingrained the myth of the “Stolen Generations” in the public consciousness, the truth of past adoption policies has been transformed into a picture of wicked discrimination and individual punishment. Many people at last Thursday’s gathering went so far as to call the adoption policies “illegal.”
This now established practice of judging the past by present-day standards obliterates the truth and will bring undone any attempt to understand our history. As Jeremy Sammut pointed out in his brief essay for the Centre for Independent Studies (and in the video below), the Prime Minister’s initiative was an example of easy moralism and a convenient opportunity to avoid current failings.
And what of the unintended consequences? (Yes, Prime Minister, every policy and every action has unintended consequences.) Sammut made the point that 40 years ago the Whitlam Government’s introduction of the single mother’s pension helped to end the policy of forced adoption. Taxpayer-funded income support gave women who became pregnant out of wedlock the realistic optionof keeping their children. And it signalled the end of the need for moral restraint.
As Sammut put it:
“The politically incorrect reality that has emerged in the past 40 years is that welfare for the unwed has led to the very social problem that forced adoption was designed to prevent – the inability of (some but not all) single mothers reliant on public assistance to properly care for children outside of a traditional, financially self-supporting family.
The inconvenient truth is that the right to welfare has become a pathway to welfare dependence and welfare-related dysfunction for a significant underclass of single mothers and their children, and has contributed significantly to the scale of the child protection crisis confronting the nation today.”
So now — have you noticed Prime Minister? — we have high levels of single motherhood, abandoned families, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and unemployables consuming ever-increasing proportions of the welfare budgets.
The reason that the statistics of these issues command such little public interest is that morality has become a dirty, politically incorrect word. Half a century ago, there was a community consensus on morals. At times families delivered harsh judgments on adolescents who breached these accepted standards and brought shame on the family and the street. The adoption policies attempted a solution appropriate and acceptable to those times.
What proportion of the population did the hundreds who packed the hall to hear politicians make obligatory obeisance to public fashion, apologising for policies for which they were not responsible, represent? Miniscule. Minute. The vast majority of girls and boys tried to live within the moral guidelines of the era, their natural impulses curbed by the knowledge of the certain consequences. Of those who were caught out, many solved the problem in shotgun marriages. However unsatisfactory this might have been for future marital harmony, it meant at least accepting responsibility for actions. For many others, loving parents sheltered daughters and helped bring up the child.
So, Prime Minister, all we have done with current welfare policies, as well as the “enlightened” legislation on abortion, is move the goal posts. The game – because humans have not changed very much – goes on. Just how far attitudes have changed, and how easy those mothers and children of forced adoption really had it, was brought home to me by reading Amalia’s Tale by David Kertzer, professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University in the US.
It’s the story of what happened to thousands of women in Italy (but also across Europe) who developed syphilis by wet-nursing babies from foundling homes. In Italy, the foundling homes had been set up by the Church in the Papal States to take in the abandoned or unwanted new-born of unwed girls and prostitutes. Often the babies had contracted syphilis in utero. With the primitive medical facilities of the time, frequently the babies were farmed out, undiagnosed but infected, to sturdy young peasant wives for whom the 9 lire a month was a welcome cash supplement. The disease was then easily transmitted to husband and other children.
The book is the story of a legal challenge to the Bologna foundling home by a young lawyer on behalf of such an illiterate wet-nurse whose family was ruined by the syphilis she contracted. It took ten years before the Supreme Court found against the doctors and directors of the Bologna foundling home in Italy’s first case of professional medical negligence. By the end, costs consumed all the expenses awarded; Amalia got nothing.
In the frantic attempts to stem the epidemic of syphilis, the foundling home resorted to artificial feeding with cow’s milk, and killed more than 70% of the babies. This was only 113 years ago. Not until the invention of pasteurisation in 1920 and the later development of infant formula did the age-old industry of wet-nursing abandoned and unwed mothers’ babies fade into history.
In Australia, the women, and the children who were separated from their birth-mothers undoubtedly suffered the loss of the parental bond that has been valued and cherished for millennia. But it was a loss in the mind. Most grew up in loving families who cared for, even indulged them, and suffered no physical harm. (Some, to my knowledge developed genetic behavioural problems that caused great stress on their adopting family). But the policy was well-intentioned by the norms of the time and carried out with the best interests of all in mind.
I grew up through the period in which these adoption polices were in place. I knew of no public or private condemnation of them at the time. In an era when contraception was not freely available, pre-marital intercourse was both highly risky and socially damned. Failure to conform to the social mores could not lead to a resort to public support at cost to the taxpayer. If the family would not support mother and child, welfare policy passed the baby to an eager family which often had been unable to have its own children.
Today the Prime Minister believes the taxpayers should bear the cost, whatever the consequences. Perhaps it is time to ask: Which age is more irresponsible? Where is the morality?
Geoffrey Luck worked for the ABC for 26 years as a senior reporter and news editor