Human Dignity and the forced adoption policy in Australia

Human Dignity and the forced adoption policy in Australia in the 50?s, 60?s and 70?s.

How is the case study on forced adoption in Australia in the 50?s, 60?s and 70?s and issue of human dignity?

From the case study presented.

Explain why you believe this to be an issue where human dignity is a critical factor.

Analyse at least two perspectives on this particular case. The following questions should act as a guide in your analysis.

1. What understanding of the concept of human dignity appears to be at work in each perspective?

2. What are the social attitudes, norms, or circumstances that may have influenced each perspective? To what extent do these social attitudes, norms, or circumstances impact on the understanding of human dignity in each perspective?

3. How does each perspective justify particular actions or choices with reference to human dignity?

4. In this unit, we have considered human dignity and the human person as multidimensional. If you consider in isolation the argument of each perspective in turn, what aspects of human dignity could be jeopardised by any actions arising from those perspectives?

5. Evaluation of the implications and consequences of adopting a perspective in isolation

Perspectives are:

Perspective 1: The practice of forced adoption makes a false distinction between the capacity of young, largely unwed, mothers to raise their own children, and the capacity of married, more financially secure, mothers, to do the same. The practice of forced adoption hindered these young mothers from demonstrating their innate dignity.

Perspective 2: The shame and guilt, felt by women who found themselves pregnant out of wedlock and were forced or coerced into give up their babies, resulted in their loss of dignity. The national apology was intended to restore this lost dignity.

Perspective 3: Social mores in the 1950s, 60s and 70s deemed women in particular situations to be unfit mothers. The perceived immoral actions of unmarried pregnant women led them to be treated without dignity.

Use the 4 quadrant understanding of human dignity uploaded as the basis for all discussions

Human Dignity and the forced adoption policy in Australia


Dignity is the perceived value a person is assigned based on the way others treat him/her (Kateb, 2011). When one is treated in a way that upholds their value, their dignity is upheld. If a person is treated as inferior, he or she has been denied dignity. The elements of an individual that help in granting him/her value include intellect and autonomy. The aim of this exercise is to analyze human dignity in relation to the forced adoptions of Australia which happened between the 1950s and the 1980s.

The Forced adoptions are an ideal case study because the process featured violations of human dignity. The victims were the unwed women since their new born babies were taken from them forcefully into foster families. This effectively separated these children with their birth mothers for flimsy reasons (Young, 1950). This historical injustice will be examined through the exploration of two main perspectives. The first is found in the article “Adoption, Secrecy and the Spectre of the True Mother in Twentieth Century Australia” by Shurlee Swain in 2011. The second one is from the essay under the title ‘“Forced Adoption” in the Australian Story of National Regret and Apology ’

The Four Quardrants of human dignity

The four quadrants of dignity is based on an attempt by sociologists to categrize the different ways dignity is manifested. Each of the four quadrants is based on unique parameters such as the how facts are applied, the judgement made by the individual and also the effect  that the said actions wil have on the recipients of any given treatment.

Source : (2012)

 Subjectivity comes from an individual person’s point of view regarding his or her dignity. Objectivity on the other hand refers to the equal application of dignity.  Thirdly there is Intersubjectivity and this refers to the dignity of a whole group of people. Last but not least there is interobjectivity which is the based on the way a sub-group is treated by a larger and often more powerful group.

 (Source: DE Quincey, 2005)

The first perspective

Adoption, Secrecy and the Spectre of the True Mother in Twentieth Century Australia

This is the point of view that was held by key decision makers and their inputs helped in the formulation and modification the laws that oversaw adoption in Australia. The quadrants that come into play are the interobjective, intersubjective, as well as the subjective elements of human dignity. The reason why these quadrants are considered is the fact that the narratives captured here present the concerns of three key stakeholder groups (Schachter, 1983). These three are mothers, community and also the adopted children. Each of these groups has a claim to one of the elements of human dignity.

The subjective element of human dignity first applies to the biological mothers. They suffered great deal in this period. The policy directly attacked their ability to be mothers to their children. At the time, the state decided that unwed women were incapable of caring for babies. This resulted in incidents that denied birth mothers a chance to interact with the babies they had carried for nine months.

The state believed that this would somewhat ‘reset’ her life allowing her to continue as if nothing happened. This action was further supported through the sealing of files to conceal the destinations or identities of the children. This denial of the subjective dignity of unwed mothers is seen in the assumptions the authorities made about their mental condition,  the bond they had formed with their unborn babies, their thoughts about the whereabouts of their children and also the memories they would retain.

Children forcefully adopted were also denied their interobjective aspect of human dignity. This is because they were forcibly taken to foster families in spite of the presence of their birth mothers (Schachter, 1983). The sealing of files was a clear indication that they were to be kept in the dark about this. They therefore lived their lives unaware of their being adopted soon after being born. As they grew up it is highly likely that the physical, mental and psychological differences between them and their parents began being more obvious.

Lawmakers and the electorate they represented appear to have sought to take care of their societal dignity. This falls into the intersubjective quadrant of human dignity. By coming together and working towards the propagation of the traditional Australian family, they clearly demonstrated a desire for a dignified community. Their concept of a mother was therefore debated over and over again. This community is the only stakeholder group that succeeded in protecting its dignity.

Norms that shaped this point of view are based on their concept of a family, its members, the gender roles and finally morality to a large extent. For the better part, the accepted configuration of a family featured the father, the mother and children. In light of this, unwed women raising a child or children failed to meet the societal standard of family. Another influence may have been Christianity which is against children being born out of wedlock. It was evidence of fornication and sexually immorality. The then law criminalized ‘carnal knowledge’ and society thought he best way of ‘saving’ unwed women as to take away the baby soon after birth. Looking at this article, it is clear that the author is aligned to Western culture which is thought to be progressive. This is a passive aggressiveness against these societal standards in the article.

The point of view presented here was justified based on the notion that Australia is a democratic country which means that political leadership has to ensure the concerns of the electorate are taken care of. At this time the society was highly conservative and there was limited room for the legislators and judges to come up with decisions contrary to public opinion. Unwed women who were pregnant were also a part of this society. It therefore appeared that the only ticket they had to living normal lives free of castigation was by giving away the babies through adoption as soon as possible (Wegar, 1997).

The Second Perspective:  “Forced Adoption” in the Australian Story of National Regret and Apology

This essay discusses the action that has been taken by different individuals and lobbies aiming at compelling the Australian Government to formally apologize for sanctioning these forced adoptions during the 1950s all the way to the 1970s (Cuthbert and Quartly, 2012). The analysis of the perspective presented here will be done through the delineation of the human dignity quadrant that is best captured, the impact of societal norms on the matter and also the justification of the actions in regard to the emerging dynamics of human dignity (YNGVESSON, 1997).

Two quadrants or concepts of human dignity are at play in this essay. These concepts are subjectivity and objectivity. The government’s action of mistreating the young unwed women together with their new born babies shows denial of human dignity. This is because forced adoption was an act of dehumanization as well as the women’s treatment as more of things than individuals. This claim is made because the ‘voluntary’ participation of unwed pregnant women in their waiving of their rights to mother the children was for the most part a coercive exercise. It has not been proven that these women were actually given a choice; it was more of them being placed between a rock and a hard place. From the outside, the government had insisted that all was well because children were going into stable families. These children too were objectified by the forced adoptions and this is evidenced by their being separated forcefully from their biological mothers who did this at the hands of social workers.

The issue of subjectivity as an important element of human dignity is brought about by the fact that each of these women’s suffering was manifested in a different way. They endured this shame and pain as individuals despite the offensive action being committed by the state. They had to make the very difficult decision about their between being viewed as immoral women or their having to live with the pain of knowing that they do not having a chance to have a relationship with the children they had given birth to. The blame for this situation squarely falls on the state and hence the need for an official apology (Sammut, 2013).

This perspective was influenced by a change in social attitudes held towards single-motherhood. In the middle of the 20th century, single motherhood was viewed as the manifestation of a woman’s inability to protect her sexual morality. This is because she was guilty of sleeping around while still unmarried. Furthermore, it was believed that men were the sole breadwinners and this meant that single mothers lacked the resources to support their babies. The human instinct of these biological mothers was to survive and the best strategy of ensuring their survival in Australian society was through signing the documents which were hurriedly presented to them by social workers are likely to have threatened them or duped them into believing that this would enable them to lead normal presentable lives from the time of adoption henceforth. The truth of the matter however is that this action left many of these women with deep emotional scars. The fact that today’s  single women are able provide their children with a comfortable life indicates a shift in social views and this further aggravates the pain of these women.

This perspective therefore adequately justifies the demands being made for an official apology from the government. This will help heal the emotional scars and restore the subjective dignity of the women who were afflicted by the forced adoption. They will get to feel that Australian society is not shunning them. The apology will also serve to help them heal and move on from the forced and permanent loss of their babies. The subjectiveness of this aspect of human dignity lies in the fact that different women will respond to the apology differently (Fronek and Cuthbert, 2013).

If the argument from the first perspective is to be taken isolation and implemented, the aspect of human dignity that will be compromised is the subjective aspect. This is because the decision being made is being carried out on behalf of other individuals without their conditions or concerns being taken into account.

In the second perspective, the issue of human dignity which will be adversely affected by the action being proposed is the interobjective. The reason for this is the fact that this perspective’s effort to ensure the maintenance of subjective dignity will undoubtedly disrupt the systems and institutions whose position ends up coming under disrepute and ridicule.


Human dignity is a critical factor to be considered in the handling of Australia’s historical adoptions.  Unjust laws ensured unwed mothers and their children are denied dignity. This was highlighted through the analysis of the two perspectives about the forced adoptions. The perspectives are articles titled “adoption, secrecy and the specter of the true mother in twentieth century Australia” being the first perspective and ““Forced Adoption” in the Australian Story of National Regret and Apology.” These perspectives also help illustrate the complexity of human dignity.


Cuthbert, D., & Quartly, M. (2012). “Forced Adoption” in the Australian Story of National Regret and Apology. Australian Journal of Politics & History, 58(1), 82-96.

Schachter, O. (1983). Human dignity as a normative concept. American Journal of International Law, 848-854.

WEGAR, K. (1997). In search of bad mothers: Social constructions of birth and adoptive motherhood. Women’s Studies International Forum 20 (1): 77_86.

YNGVESSON, B. (1997). Negotiating motherhood: Identity and difference in ‘open’ adoptions. Law and Society Review 31 (1): 31_80.

Swain, S. (2011). Adoption, Secrecy and the Spectre of the True Mother in Twentieth-Century Australia. Australian Feminist Studies, 26(68), 193-205.

YOUNG, L.C. (1950). Out of wedlock: A study of the problems of the unmarried mother and her child. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fronek, P., & Cuthbert, D. (2013). Apologies for forced adoption practices: Implications for contemporary intercountry adoption. Australian Social Work, 66(3), 402-414.

Kateb, G. (2011). Human dignity. Harvard University Press.

Sammut, J. (2013). The Fraught Politics of Saying Sorry for Forced Adoption: Implications for Child Protection Policy in Australia. Centre for Independent Studies. (2012) Human Rights and indicators: Some Rationale and Concerns.

De Quincey, C., 2005, Radical knowing: Understanding consciousness through relationship, Park Street Press, Rochester.

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