Skip to main content

“Unfit Mothers”: The Scary Reality for Unmarried Pregnant Women During the 20th Century

Sandra de la Riva is a sociologist researcher and translator working in the development of human rights.

Forced adoptions affected hundreds of thousands of women throughout Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom in the twentieth century.

Forced adoptions affected hundreds of thousands of women throughout Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom in the twentieth century.

Unmarried Pregnant Women During the 20th Century

In the last decade, around one million unmarried and underaged women were forced to give up their children for adoption. These women were manipulated and coerced by family members, doctors, and churches into putting up their children for adoption—some were even drugged. Many of the mothers were not granted access to social benefits, further forcing them to give up their babies. To reassure the women, they were told that it would be the best for the child and that they could have children in the future when they were married and “fit” to be a mother. Therefore, with little to no choice, British, Irish, Northern Irish, Scottish, Canadian, and Australian women were forced to give up their children. The majority of these women were not permitted to meet their baby after giving birth nor given information about the adoption. In some cases, women were threatened with imprisonment if they tried to find their children.

The demand for adopted children boomed after the Second World War, becoming a thriving industry for hospitals and religious groups who were funded by the government for their “adoption services.” “Traditional” couples who could not have children of their own sought to become parents through the help of church-run organizations and hospitals. The adopted children had no idea that they were stolen from their mothers. They were told that their birth mothers were dead or that they didn’t want children [1]. Due to social attitudes, these women suffered a lifetime of grief and pain, leaving many traumatized and unable to have another child. In recent years, Amnesty International has called out this abuse of human rights. Sadly, forced adoption is still present in some countries, and to this day many mothers have yet to meet their children. In the past decade, the Australian and Irish governments have issued formal apologies for these human rights violations; additionally, Canada and Scotland have taken actions to do the same. Despite this being a step in the right direction, history cannot be forgotten.

At 18, Linda Miles was forced to give up her child for adoption. She is holding a picture of when she was pregnant.

At 18, Linda Miles was forced to give up her child for adoption. She is holding a picture of when she was pregnant.


During a 50-year period, 300,000 Australian children were stolen from their mothers through forced adoption. These women were punished for having sexual relations before marriage and therefore, were labeled as "unable" to raise a child. The growing demand to adopt children after WWII, fueled hospitals to take part in forced adoptions. Many of the hospitals, the majority of which were Catholic-run, underwent this by illegally drugging pregnant mothers.

One of the hospitals at the center of this human rights violation was Crown Street Women's Hospital in Sydney, Australia. The hospital would drug unwed women during labor and make them sign over their children for adoption when in their unconscious state [2]. When the mothers woke up, they had no memory of signing any papers and were not allowed to see their children. Other hospitals would forge the signatures of the mothers or would leave adoption documents blank, illegally taking the child from their mother. Some women in Australia have sought to persecute the doctors and nurses that played a part in this human rights crime however, none have been successful. On March 21, 2013, the Australian parliament recognized these crimes and presented an official apology to the thousands of women whose children were stolen from them [3]. Additionally, counseling and support services have been put in place for the mothers.


From the end of WWII up until the 1980s, almost 600,000 “illegitimate” children were born to unmarried women in Canada, of which more than 300,000 were forced to be given up for adoption [4]. In July 2018, the Canadian Standing Senate Committee Affairs, Science and Technology, acknowledged and released a report on the hundreds of thousands of forced adoptions within the country; however, a formal apology to the mothers from the government has yet to be made [5]. The report explained that the women were not informed about their rights and that some were told to use a fake identity and not have contact with anyone, including the fathers of their babies. The report also stated that due to a lack of adequate postpartum care, 82% of the women suffered from depression and 21% attempted suicide [6].

The majority of these adoptions were managed by religious organizations that received funding from the government for these “services.” Organizations such as maternity homes were put in place to help unwed women through pregnancy and post-partum with their babies, not adoption. However, 95% of the women who went to these maternity homes were coerced into giving their babies up for adoption. The United Church of Canada ran several of these maternity homes and on November 20th, 2020, the Executive of the General Council of the church issued a formal apology to all the women who were forced and coerced into giving their children up for adoption while in these maternity homes [7].

At 16 years old, Jill Killington was forced to give up her child for adoption

At 16 years old, Jill Killington was forced to give up her child for adoption


From the 1940s to the 1970s, around 250,000 women in Britain were forced to give their children up for adoption because they were unmarried and therefore, “unfit” to raise a child [8]. These women were not informed that if they were to keep their babies, they would have been eligible to receive financial aid and housing from the government. Instead, they were coerced and manipulated into signing consent forms for adoption. For those who would not consent, forms were forged and signed by doctors or family members.

Many of these adoptions were organized through agencies and maternity homes that represented the church. Some of the maternity homes did not provide just or proper medical treatment to the women and obliged them to work in exchange for their stay and “adoption services.” In 1976, adoption responsibilities in the UK were put in the hands of the government and local authorities, declaring that voluntary organizations, such as religious establishments, would no longer handle adoptions [9].

In 2016, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, apologized for the church’s part in forced adoptions from the 1950s to the 1970s. In May 2021, hundreds of these mothers demanded an official apology from the government for this human rights violation. The prime minister has yet to respond and a formal apology has not been made as of yet [10].

Today, due to adoption reforms acts presented in 1975 and 1989, mothers and their children now have legal access to adoption records. These reforms have given the opportunity for children to reunite with their birth mothers, healing some of the pain [11]. However, forced adoptions still exist and it is recorded that 90% of the almost 3,500 yearly adoptions in the UK, are done against the will of the birth family [12].

Newborns put up for adoptions

Newborns put up for adoptions


From 1922 to 1998, thousands of children of unwed women were given up for adoption in mother-baby homes in Ireland[13]. Having little to no say in the manner, many of the mothers and their children endured abuse within these homes. During this period of time, Ireland was known for having one of the highest adoptions rates in the world—97% [14]. Only around 3% of unmarried Irish mothers succeeded in keeping their children. A report released by the Irish government on January 12th, 2021, showed that over an 8-decade period, 15%, 9,000, of the children born within these state funded homes died from poor conditions and mistreatment [15]. The report examined 18 of the 182 institutions involved in forced adoption and abuse [16].

The day after the report was released, the Taoiseach, the Prime Minister of the republic of Ireland, presented a formal apology to the women who resided in state funded mother and baby homes, acknowledging the mistreatment and forced adoptions within these establishments. To further help the healing process, on May 12th, 2021 the Irish government presented a bill that would enable adopted children to have access to their birth information, allowing them to potentially reconnect with their birth family [17].

Northern Ireland

From 1922 to 1990, around 14,000 Northern Irish unwed mothers gave birth in one of the dozen mother-and-baby institutions run by churches and religious organizations [18]. In these state-funded institutions, mothers suffered abuse, forced detention, judgment, forced labor, and forced adoption [19]. Official state records show that it wasn’t uncommon for women and their children to die in these homes due to malnutrition and mistreatment [20]. During this time, unmarried Northern Irish mothers were shunned by society and not given any legal or financial support, rendering them powerless. It wasn’t until 1973, that the Social Welfare Act extended aid to unmarried women, allowing these mothers to gain access to government allowances in order to care for their children [21]. In 2018, Amnesty International put out a call on illegal and forced adoptions in mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland, stating the homes forced adoption violated human rights as well as partook in human trafficking [22].

In the same year, the Clann project released a three-year investigation on adoption abuses in church-run mother and baby homes within the country. The document explained that mothers were tied to beds while giving birth and even sat on by nuns to force their babies out—telling the women they were “paying for their sins” through labor pain [23]. These women were forced to work while pregnant, even when sick, and had their children given up for adoption without their consent—mother’s signatures were forged for adoption. The report also called upon the government and religious orders to acknowledge their roles in the matter as well as for the government to undergo a formal investigation [24]. Additionally, the project called upon the government to create a statutory rule that allows adopted children to have access to their birth certificates as well as adoption records. As of now, no apologies or acknowledgments have been made however, a report by the Department of Health was presented in 2021 with Amnesty International and a formal investigation is said to be underway [25].

Monica Lennon, Member of the Scottish Parliament

Monica Lennon, Member of the Scottish Parliament


From the 1950s to the 1980s more than 60,000 unwed Scottish women were forced into giving their babies up for adoption [26]. One of the ways in which the government coerced these women into giving up their children was by denying them access to any social benefits—legally these women should have had access to these benefits [27]. Many of these mothers went to religious-run maternity homes to give birth to their babies. Once at the homes, the women were manipulated and guilted into giving up their children [28].

In 2017, a petition was presented to the Scottish government to undergo a full investigation into forced adoptions within the country; however, the request was denied. Recently, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, Monica Lennon, called upon the Scottish Parliament to issue a formal apology to the mothers. This call for action was first campaigned for by, Marion Mcmillian, a Scottish woman who at the age of 17 was forced to give up her mixed-race son in 1967. The motion has been backed by all Scottish parties and in June 2021 was debated by parliament. A final decision has yet to be announced [29].

Lessons From the Past

The majority of the adoptive parents did not know that they partook in these forced adoptions. They had no idea that their newfound happiness created pain and suffering for their child's birth mother. The children of these women grew up never knowing the truth of their adoption, having their origins and family ties robbed from them. Additionally, many of the birth fathers never knew they had a child, let alone that he or she was put up for adoption.

Pregnant unmarried women were punished and ostracized by their families and society for being unmarried prior to having a child. This idea began to change in the 1970s with the women’s liberation movement and the legalization of abortion and birth control. Today, women have less of a stigma for acting as solo parents and the majority of governments provide assistance to help women raise their children. However, forced adoption is still occurring and actions must be made to support these women and their children.

The past cannot be forgotten, but it can be a lesson. All governments and institutions who partook in these human rights violations must still do their part and present formal apologies to the hundreds of thousands of women whose rights they abused for decades as well as provide counseling services for them and their adopted children. An apology and counseling may not make up for the damage done, but they can help in the healing process.


[1] 60,000 forced adoption victims: "We were vulnerable, bullied and told if we loved our babies, we’d give them up." - The Sunday Post

[2] Our World. Australia's Adoption Shame. - YouTube

[3] Forced Adoption Practices | Department of Social Services, Australian Government (

[4] Two years after Senate report on forced adoption, mothers are still waiting for apology - BC Catholic - Multimedia Catholic News

[5] SOCI_27th_e.pdf (

[6] The legacy of forced adoption: 300,000 unmarried Canadian women had to give up their babies | CBC Docs POV

[7] Apology for Past Adoption Practices | The United Church of Canada (

[8] Mothers demand apology for decades of forced adoptions | News | The Times

[9] Catholic church apologises for role in 'forced adoptions' over 30-year period | Adoption | The Guardian

[10] Mothers demand apology over forced adoptions - BBC News

[11] Unmarried women forced to hand over their babies for adoption - BBC News - YouTube

[12] Cruel forced adoptions are still happening today | Letters | The Guardian

[13] Mother and baby home adoptions may have been legal but that does not make them right (

[14] Forced adoptions: an appalling vista? (

[15] Taoiseach apologises on State’s behalf over mother and baby homes (

[16] Mother & Baby Homes Commission Report – ADOPTION RIGHTS ALLIANCE

[17] Ireland's shame: reforming an adoption system marked by secrecy and trauma (

[18] Northern Ireland: Mother and baby inquiry must deliver long-awaited truth and justice for survivors | Amnesty International UK

[19] Mother and Baby Institutions in Northern Ireland | Amnesty International UK

[20]Mother and baby homes: the case for a public inquiry - Investigations & Analysis - Northern Ireland from The Detail

[21] bills1973qq-04.pdf (

[22] Northern Ireland: Inquiry call over 'illegal' forced adoptions at mother and baby home | Amnesty International UK

[23] 'My mother was tied to the bed and when she couldn't push, one of the nuns sat on her chest' (

[24] bills1973qq-04.pdf (

[25] Research Report on Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries in Northern Ireland | Department of Health (

[26] AUK Scotland calls for apology over forced adoptions | Adoption UK Charity

[27] Apology for forced adoption 'would heal' Scottish women's shame - BBC News

[28] Historical wrong: When 60,000 unmarried mothers were forced to give babies up for adoption, World News |