Inside Story

Rights and desires

Susan Powell traces the dramatically changing landscape of adoption in Australia

Susan Powell 4 March 2014 2111 words

“A service to childless couples”: Babies lined up for selection at the Methodist Babies’ Home in the 1930s. Connections Uniting Care

The Market in Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption
By Marian Quartly, Shurlee Swain and Denise Cuthbert | Monash University Publishing | $34.95

ALTHOUGH a “market in babies” has existed in Australia since the arrival of Europeans, its characteristics have changed almost out of recognition over the past seventy years, a period in which a significant over-supply gave way to a growing scarcity of local adoptees. The endpoint, today, is the virtual cessation of adoption in Australia, regardless of where the child was born. The total number of adoptions of children born either overseas or locally – the latter category including foster parents, step-parents or other family members, but almost never strangers – is now fewer than 500 a year.

Almost everyone knows someone in at least one corner of the “adoption triangle” – adoptee, birth mother or adoptive parent. Regardless of personal links, though, the permanent transfer of babies or young children from the women who bore them to those prepared to raise them as their own is a compelling narrative. In this fresh look at the subject, three scholars in the fields of welfare history, the history of the family, and public policy, offer a lucid, clearly written account, compact in length but not in scope, of adoption in Australia. Their timeline runs from the early years of white settlement to the entirely different conditions in the early twenty-first century, intertwining expert knowledge, first-person experiences, and key documents and legislation. Well-chosen photos of past practice add to the vividness of the narrative.

The authors view the basic transaction – the transfer of the adoptee from one setting to another, often very different one – through the prism of the market within which it occurs. This approach illuminates much about each stage and stakeholder; particularly revealing is how this latter group came to include governments, social workers, hospitals, churches, charities, and self-help and advocacy organisations. (In recent years, some of these parties have publicly apologised for their earlier assumptions and actions.)

The authors examine attitudes towards “illegitimacy,” as well as notions of “a desire for a child,” “a right to a child” and “the best interests of the child,” and the effects on adoption rates of contraception, abortion and reproductive technology. The provision of state support for single mothers, the influence of the media, the speaking out by previously unheard voices, the rise and eventual decline of the inter-country adoption program – each of these unpredictable factors plays a role in the history that unfolds in The Market in Babies.

FORTY or so years ago, when availability outstripped demand and a buyers’ market prevailed, the situation today would have been hard to envisage. In that period of abundance, adoption was administered “as a service to childless couples,” as the authors put it – a service that increasingly privileged them over birth families and adoptees, whose rights were disregarded. Birth records were sealed and a new birth certificate, designed to expunge the past, was issued.

Further back, the first waves of European settlers had made their own informal and fluid arrangements, handing over children they were unable or unwilling to parent to relatives or other families they knew who were prepared to do so. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, the growth of population centres led to the real beginnings of the market: newspaper advertisements placed by parents seeking adoption, by persons unknown, of children surplus to their requirements or capacity; and other advertisements placed by those wishing to adopt, for a range of motives, not always unmixed. The relinquishing party would often offer financial inducement to the adopting party.

These private arrangements, with their attendant risks for all concerned, ceased in the 1920s when all states except Western Australia (which had already done so in 1896) passed regulating legislation requiring adoptions to be registered and no money to change hands. By guaranteeing the new parents security of possession and protection from the birth family, these new laws were intended to encourage adoption, regarded as the perfect solution to a double problem: the stain on a child of being born outside wedlock, on the one hand, and the pain of infertility experienced by “respectable” childless couples, on the other. Yet the public response to these moves was far from enthusiastic. Demand for babies did take off during and after the second world war, however, and it remained high – and easily met – for the next thirty years or so. In the ten years from 1968, for instance, some 68,000 children were adopted in Australia.

With more children on the market than approved couples to take them in, a peak was reached for the year 1971–72, when just under 10,000 children were placed with new families. In light of the surplus, adoptive parents could afford to be picky; the child they hoped to make their own may have been a precious commodity but it had to be suitable. Highly valued were blond hair, blue eyes, and an acceptable background or heredity… or at least one that a different and better environment could overcome.

Many would-be adoptive couples could view prospective infants on parade at public events (one organisation “reported great success” as a result of displaying the children in its care at its “regular stall” at the Royal Melbourne Show) or make their choice after looking through albums produced by institutions seeking to place relinquished infants. They might also have been enticed by cinema advertisements asking them to consider coming forward. Magazine and newspaper articles depicted married couples who were prepared to adopt a child bearing the stigma of illegitimacy as “open-hearted and generous,” and birth mothers were promoted as “doing the right thing” for their offspring by giving them up.

During the 1950s and 60s, this market spawned the new profession of social work. With private arrangements outlawed, social and welfare workers bent their skills to assessing couples and playing matchmaker with babies. Satisfied couples would sometimes return to adopt subsequent children. Although parents were expected to tell children that they were adopted, the sealing of records meant there was little or no information they could pass on about the child’s origins. It wasn’t until the unsealing of records in most states in the mid 1990s, after intense pressure by lobby groups of the disenfranchised, that adoptees had the opportunity to identify and perhaps trace their birth parents.

The glut of babies to supply a clamorous market had come at a price of enormous suffering for the overwhelmingly young, unmarried (but not necessarily unpartnered) women who had given birth to them. Myriad stories about their shameful treatment are quoted in this book and can be found in many other books, and on websites and blogs. The women recount their ignorance about their condition, their options at the time and their rights; of being pressured by parents, social workers, hospital staff and others to sign away their babies at birth or soon after. Such decisions were often made under the influence of heavy drugs and as the result of other kinds of appallingly cruel, officially sanctioned duress.

Frequently, birth mothers were not told that they had several days in which to revoke their decision to relinquish, and that there was in fact a small amount of government financial aid available to them even prior to the introduction of the pension for supporting mothers in 1973, which would change the equation so dramatically. Had more single mothers been aware of such assistance in those years, more of them might have been able to keep their babies, albeit with financial and other support from their parents.

The second half of the 1970s saw a paradigm shift in the baby market. By 1975 the number of adoptions of children born in Australia had fallen to about 5000 a year, and was on a steady decline; after 1991 it didn’t reach 1000 a year. Fewer babies were being born to single women because of increased use of contraception and access to abortion, and of those who were, their mothers were likely to keep them. The last decades of the century saw the reversal of community and media attitudes towards the morality of mothers raising children on their own. Unpinning the possibility of single motherhood was the increase in the number of women in the workforce and the concomitant rise in the availability and affordability of childcare.

MEANWHILE, the market in babies had taken off in a new direction with the growing national consciousness of war orphans in Vietnam. The dramatic airlift in 1975 of young children, not necessarily orphaned, from a collapsing Saigon to Sydney put the possibility of adopting from overseas firmly on the agenda of hopeful Australian couples (with the added advantage that the birth family was out of the picture). The countries that came to supply these babies included many in the region as well as some in South America, Africa and even Eastern Europe. Adoptive parents endured long waiting lists, intrusive assessments, strict requirements and much bureaucracy; they also needed to travel to collect the child and, ideally, return to the birth country for later visits.

Between 1970 and 2008, more than 10,000 children arrived in Australia as intercountry adoptees. The authors of The Market in Babies have frank reservations about this practice, not least because it reproduces “the same relationships of power and inequality” that adoption within Australia under the old system had reinforced.

For the tiny numbers of people who presently manage to adopt children born in Australia the environment has totally changed. Those few pregnant women who relinquish their babies at birth have a say in whom they go to. Under the “open adoption” conditions that have prevailed for many years, adoptive parents must be prepared to engage in face-to-face contact and/or exchange of information with birth relatives.

People wishing to raise “other people’s children” are limited to applying for those with “special needs,” which could be a physical or other disability, a difficult background, or simply the fact that they are older than babies and toddlers. For various reasons these children cannot live with their birth families, but those families remain in the picture. The placement is likely to be some form of permanent care or long-term fostering rather than adoption; although these forms of care sometimes turn into adoption, that shouldn’t be the expectation.

IT IS to a quite different way of making a family – via offshore surrogacy – that the authors turn their attention in their closing chapter. With the disappearance of baby adoption here, and in the face of an overwhelming desire for a baby of their own (often underpinned by the belief that a right is involved), some Australian couples and unpartnered people are paying women, typically in India, to bear babies for them. (Altruistic surrogacy is the only kind permitted in Australia, and as such is very limited.) In these cases, reproductive technology has generally not worked or is inappropriate.

Paying to have a child gestated in the womb of a woman overseas is “the newest model in the market for children,” the authors write, and “looks set to take the place of adoption” as a way of acquiring a child. The woman who is commissioned to act as a “gestational carrier” for the pregnancy is not the one who provides the egg; this may come from the would-be mother in Australia or from another woman, in India or elsewhere. The sperm comes from the father. Prospective parents in Australia pay about $10,000, including the surrogate’s fee, for the IVF and other services involved. The surrogate is typically involved in order to educate her family, buy a house, or start a business – investments that were previously out of her family’s financial reach. After the birth, her job is done; she hands the child over and it is brought to Australia, or one of the many other countries from which commissioning parents come.

In 2011, more than 250 Australians paid to have babies created via the large and hitherto-unregulated Indian industry. Very recent legislative changes in India are closing off that market to same-sex male couples and unmarried people from abroad, however, as well as imposing other restrictions. But there are other surrogacy markets in other countries (and a lively international trade in eggs and sperm), which prospective Australian consumers will no doubt be exploring. Judging by websites promoting Indian surrogacy services, and the (generally ecstatic) postings by those whose babies were created in this way, for many people (parents and would-be parents) no moral, psychological, legal or other issues complicate the happy scene. •