A double dose of shame

Karen Constantine

Karen Constantine says its time for an official adoption apology 

“The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it’s nothing.” This was Harold Wilson’s famous line from the 1962 Labour Party conference. Wise words which fuelled many social justice campaigns, Hillsborough and Grenfell spring to mind. It’s a sentiment that still holds a great deal of currency for many Labour Party members, supporters and voters. We, unlike the Tories, want to do the right thing – it’s in our DNA. Right? I hope Sir Kier Starmer – as the next Prime Minister designate – feels this way too. 

For the survivors, the dead, and the families of those seeking redress in respect of Britain’s appalling policy on forced adoption between 1949 and 1976 (the practice only stopped in the early 1980s) those words matter gravely. During these recent decades, over 185,000 women in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland were forced to give away their babies. Forced to give them away to strangers. Those babies, now ‘Adult Adoptees,’ can recount the damage this inhumane process inflicted upon them.

The social stigma of being a single unmarried mother, combined with a lack of support, little access to financial support or housing, and the mantle of ‘shame’ lent weight to the State’s heavy-handed involvement, aided by an extensive network of religious organisations, moral welfare organisations and social services. Very few women who found themselves pregnant and unmarried were able to act with their own agency. These women – and their children – paid a heavy price. 

Mother and baby homes first appeared in England in 1891, by 1968 there were 172 homes, mainly run by religious bodies. In the 1960s mother and baby homes catered for between 11,000 and 12,000 unmarried mothers annually. The numbers of mothers submitting to forced adoption peaked in 1968, when 16,164 adoption orders were granted.

In 2020 Harriet Harman MP coordinated evidence to the JCHR, the Joint Committee on Human Rights Inquiry. More than 350 people shared painful testimony of their experience of being forced into mother and baby homes, and of being coerced into giving up their babies. Very often this was against the maternal birth mothers wishes. Adult Adoptees also gave first hand accounts of the significant difficulties they have experienced as a result of a policy of vilification and blame that has lifelong negative impact. 

Harriet Harman MP said “the bond between mothers and babies was ‘brutally ruptured’ over the period. The mothers’ only ‘crime’ was to have become pregnant while unmarried. Their ‘sentence’ was a lifetime of secrecy and pain.”

The JCHR’s chair said, “the mothers had to endure a cruel double dose of shame. First, the shame of getting pregnant out of wedlock and second, when society’s attitude to unmarried mothers changed, they were judged for supposedly not caring about their babies and giving away their baby.”

This is reinforced by Ann Keen (also a mother whose baby was removed from her after birth and who was previously the MP for Brentford and Isleworth): “only the Government can apologise for the failings of previous administrations.” She continues to call on the Government to meaningfully engage with the JCHR’s recommendations.

The Irish Government issued such an apology on 13/01/21, and as a result of the Inquiry the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments issued apologies on 22/03/23 and 25/04/23 respectively. However many see these apologies as tokenistic.

Julie Morgan, the deputy minister for social services in Wales, told the Senedd that the whole of the Welsh government was “truly sorry” for the cruelty of forced adoptions. 

Nicola Sturgeon who was fighting back tears as she issued a “sincere, heartfelt and unreserved” apology to the thousands of women in Scotland who were forced to give up their babies for adoption.

The Conservative UK government did say it was sorry to all those affected, adding – “we are sorry on behalf of society for what happened.” That isn’t a formal apology. 

In recent months the Movement for an Adoption Apology, MAA and Adult Adoptees have turned their attention to the likely incoming Labour Government on whom all hopes for an apology are now pinned. These women, vilified for decades, now need to be vindicated. If these women, who are advancing in age, (many have already died,) are going to receive an apology in their lifetime it needs to be soon. 

Labour must flex its moral muscle and fast. Nothing should prevent or delay this apology, which needs to be issued within the first six months of a new Labour administration. Perhaps CLPs could submit motions to ensure this happens? Perhaps Labour could and should signal its willingness to right this historic wrong prior to an election?

Time is of the essence. Time to say sorry. The dead can’t hear apologies.

Karen is herself a survivor of forced incarceration into a mother of baby home in 1978 and is now writing an anthology of testimonies from others similarly affected, please contact karen@karenconstantine.co.uk for more information or to contribute. See more at http://motherandbabyhomestories.com


  1. What would constitute a “non-tokenistic apology”, who should make it and how will it benefit those affected?

  2. Unmarried mothers in mother and baby homes in the 1960s were treated like dirt by many of the so called religious people running the homes, called fallen women if you please, in many cases teenage girls little more than children themselves. Heavy work loads to make sure babies were borne to schedule to make room for next batch for adoption Persuaded to give up their babies, not helped to manage without money. Heartbreaking to see at the time. No mention of the father’s role in the conception, all the womens fault! No guidance as to the possibility of obtaining maintenance and finding accommodation for the mother and her child. All based on the view that the babies would always have a better life with adoptive parents. A mother’s love not even considered

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