Hundreds of thousands of unmarried women who were forced to give up their babies for adoption should receive a government apology, a report has said.
The inquiry, by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, was set up following a series of reports by BBC News.
It says 185,000 women in the 1950s, 60s and 70s were “shamed” and “coerced” into giving up their babies.
Judy Baker, who was 18 when she gave birth in the 1960s, said she never got to say goodbye to her baby.
Many women say they were denied pain relief during birth and were abused by social workers, nurses and other staff.
The committee’s report says the women were subjected to “cruelty”, “abuse” and “pressure” – all for the purpose of getting them to hand over their babies for adoption.
Many women were initially sent away to mother and baby homes, often run by churches, because their parents were so embarrassed by their pregnancy.
The women “were considered to have transgressed” and had to be punished, the report said.
Evidence was taken from around 300 people, mostly birth mothers and adopted children.
Most of the mothers are now in their 70s or 80s, with the adopted people in their 40s and 50s.
These witnesses spoke of the “shame” and “secrecy” that surrounded their pregnancy.
During early medical appointments, the report says, the women were treated in a “dismissive” and “cruel” way.
One woman told the inquiry: “My (male) GP told me I was a social menace.”
Adoption agencies, too, became involved at an early stage. One witness told the inquiry she “was belittled and bullied into thinking I had only one option”, namely, to have her baby adopted.
Some of the worst experiences came in hospital, when they went to give birth.
‘Lowest of the low’
Pat Tugwell was a schoolgirl when she became pregnant in 1964. She recalls going into labour, but being roughly handled by a nurse during an intimate examination.
“It was painful, it was painful,” she told me. “She looked at me and she said ‘oh I don’t know how you can get pregnant if you can’t let me do this to you’.
“It was just such an awful thing to say. She would never have said it to anybody else who was married, so why did she say that to me just because I was unmarried? She obviously thought I was one of the lowest of the low.”
Another woman was told by a nurse that she “deserved all the pain I got” during her delivery.
A doctor said to another mother that “I should be sterilised as I must be a nymphomaniac”.
Many women told the committee they were not even allowed to hold their newborn baby.
One wrote that “they pulled her out of my arms… the pain was unbearable”.
Another woman said: “I screamed… and hung onto him like a woman possessed.”
Other evidence detailed the trauma of handing babies over to social workers.
‘I never got to say goodbye’
Judy Baker, who was 18 when she gave birth in 1967, recalled being told to put her baby down in a room, turn around and leave.
“I never got to say goodbye,” she said. “I was just told I would get on with my life. It was as if it never happened. I had to wait 32 years before I could say ‘hello’ again.
“How can you do that to a teenager and to an innocent baby? How can you part them simply because I was unmarried? It was cruel, traumatic and should never have happened.”
Chair of the committee, Labour MP Harriet Harman, said the affected women had “suffered from shame and vilification and the burden of secrecy for decades”.
“The least the government can do is recognise that this shouldn’t have happened then and it would never happen now, and it’s right for the government to apologise.”
Hundreds of birth mothers and adoptees have long campaigned for a government apology.
Veronica, who was 24 when she was forced to give up her child, told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour that such an apology would mean “recognition that what had happened was so wrong, so wrong”.
“I felt very alone”, she said. Veronica was able to trace her daughter through an intermediary contact 25 years after the forced adoption, but her daughter “really wasn’t ready at the time”.
Later on, Veronica met in 2004 with her daughter who had a child of her own by then. “It was a lovely day”, Veronica added.
Liz Harvie was born in 1974 after her mother was pressured to put her up for adoption. She says she has always had problems with her identity, but an apology would help.
“Some people say an apology, you know sorry, is just a small word, but I think really what lies behind the apology is the validation of all the pain and suffering that we have actually silently experienced.
“There’s lots of shame, lots of guilt, there’s lots of secrecy and being part of a secret society like this involved in forced adoptions has been extremely difficult for everyone involved.”
Ms Baker said an apology was “never, ever too late”.
“Sorry is so important and all of us out there are still living with the trauma and the pain that this has caused us.
“I’ve spent 50-plus years of my life, marked, scarred, by the trauma.”
The committee concluded there are “some things that only a government can do, and it falls on the government to make this apology”.
In its response to the committee’s conclusions, the government said: “We have the deepest sympathy to all those affected by historic forced adoption.
“While we cannot undo the past, we have strengthened our legislation and practice to be built on empathy, from NHS maternity services caring for vulnerable women and babies, to our work transforming the adoption process and care system to help children settle into stable homes.”
The committee also urged the government to provide better counselling services for birth mothers and adopted people.
And it called for improved access to birth and medical records, saying there are often huge disparities in the timeliness of the responses of local authorities.