The authors of this brief overview of the history of adoption in Australia can’t have known how timely its publication would be. After charting the changing balance between the rights and needs of adopting parents on one hand and adoptees and their relinquishing birth mothers on the other, they conclude with a quotation from Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s apology for the forced separation of mothers from their babies, emphasising the wrongs done to the latter (July 2013). It was, she said, ‘a story of suffering and unbearable loss.’ Today (19 December 2013) the new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has announced an investigation that aims to make it ‘much, much easier’ for Australian parents to adopt overseas, saying : ‘There are millions of children in orphanages overseas who would love to have parents. And thousands of those, maybe even tens of thousands of those could come to Australia.’ He clearly wants the balance to swing back in favour of parents who wish to adopt. But if the authors of this book are correct, this market may no longer exist.
The book is divided into two sections, the first about the experience of adoption, the second about the process and how it has evolved. The ‘experience’ section draws on the stories that adoptees, birth mothers and some adopting parents have placed on the Monash History of Adoption website, and in a few cases, recounted to government enquires. The authors are aware that their sample ‘does not represent the full range of opinions about adoption’; those for whom adoption has not been problematic, and those who prefer not to think about it at all, are not represented. Not all of the stories are about traumatic experiences, though some are – particularly those of mothers who wished to keep their babies but were actively denied that choice. The search by children for their birth mothers and mothers for their ‘lost’ children sometimes has a happy ending, but frequently does not. The authors’ point in all this is not to claim that adoption was always either a good or bad choice; it is to show that ways of thinking about what constituted a ‘good’ mother meant that the system was stacked against women who had children out of wedlock.
The book is called The Market in Babies because the authors argue that all of the changes in social attitudes, policy and practice around adoption can be linked to changes in supply of and demand for children for adoption. And this is what is charted in the second section. From the time of white settlement there had been informal adoptions between friends and relatives; from about the 1880s, a market developed where adoptions were arranged among strangers, often through advertisements in the daily press, with money changing hands. By the 1920s, all states passed legislation outlawing this practice, and creating a legal basis for adoption. This legislation gave full possession of the child to the adopting parents, sealing their birth records and preventing contact with the birth family. This situation prevailed until the 1980s, when self-help groups of adoptees and/or birth mothers began to agitate for access to their records. Once this was achieved, there was a further wave of political agitation as birth mothers found out that in many cases they had been deceived by social workers and others about their rights, even under the legislation of the time. It was this agitation that drove the apology for forced adoptions, not only by the commonwealth government, but also by hospitals and charities which had been involved in the practice.
Once the number of children available for adoption in Australia declined, the authors show how parents who wished to adopt looked overseas. They note the frustration of adopting parents with the time it takes to complete this process, but also point out that steps must be taken to ensure the best interests of the child in accordance with international conventions on human rights, the place of such adoptions as part of Australia’s overseas aid and immigration program, and ‘only finally’ the needs of the couple wishing to adopt. They argue, furthermore, that this market too is drying up, as the countries from which adoptees are sourced increasingly limit the number of children available for adoption, and impose more stringent controls to prevent the fraud and exploitation that have been endemic in this area. Last year, there were fewer than 500 adoptions in Australia, about half of which were from overseas. (This number also includes local adoptions under a new ‘open’ regime, which allows for transition from foster care to adoption.) The authors suggest that the new emerging market is in surrogacy, where women from less developed countries – usually India – carry a child for a childless couple from a developed country. If they are right, then Tony Abbott’s ‘tens of thousands’ of overseas adoptees are unlikely to materialise, whatever changes are made in Australia to speed up the process of overseas adoption.
Throughout this story, the authors highlight the conflicting interests at work: is adoption about the needs of the child, or the needs of the adopting parents? Can we assume that these are completely congruent? Or may some children be better off in their birth families, no matter how hard their circumstances? Could the money spent on overseas adoption be better spent supporting children in need in their own country? It seems to the authors that adoption, whether local or overseas, was firmly established primarily as a service to the child; Tony Abbott’s promise to make it easier for adoptive parents – whether or not he can carry it out – appears to challenge this view. Time will tell.
*Disclaimer: Professor Quartly is my sister.