By: Hannah McMurrough
Following the publication of the report of the commission’s investigation into Irish mother and baby homes in October 2020 and the recent Northern Ireland January 2021 report, the complex history and the atrocities of these institutions has been brought to the forefront of public interest revealing the shocking and inhumane treatment of unmarried women and their children during the 20th century. The practices of these institutions, the treatment of women in society and the respect, or lack of, afforded to women’s reproductive rights remains to be a relevant issue in today’s society, as the repercussions of these homes remain to be felt by families of the victims and survivors.
In both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland during the early periods of the 20th century, discrimination towards women and particularly those who were unmarried with children was prominent throughout society. The Irish report on mother and baby homes highlights how the mere existence of these institutions is evidence of the discrimination against women and that during the period investigated by the commission, women were ‘systemically discriminated against in relation to employment, family law and social welfare’ due to the fact that they were female.
Unmarried mothers were judged, rejected and stigmatized. Such a culture of intolerance, isolation and ostracization of unmarried mothers, which was profoundly entrenched within society, left little hope for these women who were treated with disrespect and subjected to harsh treatment, with many receiving no support from their families and the fathers of their children. As a result of this culture of secrecy and shame, many women were admitted to Mother and Baby homes, usually as a result of pressure to do so by family, in attempts to avoid ‘shame and loss of respectability brought upon a family by an illegitimate pregnancy.’
What were Mother and Baby Homes?
Mother and baby homes were institutions typically run by the protestant and catholic church that housed unmarried pregnant women and their children. Women and girls between the ages of 12 to mid to late forties were admitted to the homes. In Northern Ireland the report estimates that over 10,500 women were residents in a number of mother and baby homes between the years 1922 and 1990. The October 2020 report also estimates that in the Republic of Ireland, these institutions were resided in by over 56,000 mothers and 57,000 children over 76 years between 1922 and 1998.
Testimonies describe the emotional abuse suffered by the women living in these homes who were subject to ‘denigration and derogatory remarks.’ A shocking and disquieting characteristic of these institutions was the high rate of infant mortality. According to the October 2020 report, an estimate of 9000 children died during the period between 1922 and 1998.
The commission examined the placement of children who did not remain with their mothers and reviewed the extent of a mother’s participation in these decisions. Adoption was highlighted as a major pathway for children among these homes. Many of the babies born to mothers in mother and baby homes were adopted in NI, the ROI, the USA and other parts of the UK. In a lot of cases where the outcome was adoption, mothers suffered trauma and often mental health issues as a result.
Formal legal adoption in Ireland came into effect in January 1953 through the implementation of the Adoption Act 1952. In Northern Ireland, formal adoption was facilitated under the Adoption of Children Act (NI) 1950 and the Adoption (NI) Act 1967. Under these acts, it was stated that an order for adoption could not be made without the consent of the child’s mother or guardian. It was necessary to ensure that mothers were made aware of and understood the nature and the effect of their consent.
The report raises the issue of ‘informed consent’ and suggests that testimonial evidence highlights that while formal consent was given by many mothers, the highly ‘pressurised circumstances’ in which very young mothers were required to make major decisions regarding adoption meant that often they felt that there was no other option but to agree. The report states that while this was official consent, and that there is little evidence of ‘forced adoption,’ mothers did not have the social or financial support to parent their children and were faced with the prospect of not returning home if they did not surrender their ‘illegitimate’ child.
Those legally responsible for overseeing the decisions made by the women, for example the State, Adoption Boards, social workers and the courts, failed to implement structurally adequate oversight and in many cases the report highlights testimony that attributes these bodies to the infliction of stigma and pain rather that its reduction. Despite this, the report makes the distinction between the issue of forced consent and consent given as a result of lack of choice, the latter being legally valid. If mothers, at the time of signing, understood the consequences of the decision to grant consent, even in situations of fear, deprivation or stress, the adoption was valid.
Máiréad Enright, in her article on mother and baby home adoptions in the Irish Times, highlights that that the commission’s report fails to understand the position that the women and girls were in that resulted in their failure to properly understand their decisions. The reports demonstrate that the belief at the time was that adoption was the best outcome for mother and child, and as Enright states, it was believed to be an ‘unalloyed social good.’ She comments further that the focus on this context, that is that at the time adoption was viewed to be for the welfare of the child even in situations where there was doubt about the mother’s full and informed consent, results in the implication that ‘cultural pressures might override legal agency.’ The Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors also stated that the report’s findings are incomplete given its failure to examine in detail the issue of forced separation between mothers and their children.
The October 2020 outlines various recommendations in response to the findings namely information, tracing and redress. The law states that adopted people do not have a right to access information on their families of origin or their original birth certificate. In response to this, Enright advocates for reform of adoption law stating that current restrictions on access to birth certificates and early life information should be removed, especially given the commission’s findings that suggest that confidence in the consent of women to sever all legal connection to their children is limited. The commission also states that such a right should be granted to adopted people as a person’s ‘right to his or her identity is an important human right.’ The commission also recommends that redress in the form of counselling should be made available to former residents who may require them.
Following the publication of the reports, the Taoiseach Mícheál Martin issued a formal apology to the women and children of mother and baby homes stating that these institutions were a ‘profound generational wrong’ and acknowledged the country’s ‘stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture.’ As Martin states, the consequences of this ‘warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy’ were suffered by young women and their children, who paid a ‘terrible price for that dysfunction.’