The Baby Robbers:  A Sad, Unresolved Problem

By:  Penny Christensen, Executive Director, Birth Trauma Canada

Canada has a shameful obstetrical history and nowhere is that more evident than with the collusion by the state, the church and the medical establishment in robbing many unwed girls and young women of their babies.  This unholy trinity deployed clear thought-reform tactics in their quest to control female reproduction and sexuality.

These young girls were isolated, forced to use fictitious names (or first names only) and kept virtual prisoners in maternity homes so they could be shamed, coerced into giving their babies to the state or church for adoption, and punished for daring to have sex and get pregnant sans marriage license.   Maternity homes for unwed mothers were run for decades and well into the 1980s in many areas of Canada.   The Salvation Army and the Roman Catholic Church operated the majority of them but the United Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Anglican Church, the United Church, the Evangelical Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Ecumenical Church played prominent roles.  Each of these homes was linked to their adoption agency that found homes for the stolen babies they deemed more suitable.  These young girls were stripped of their self-worth, programmed to believe they were unfit to parent, given zero support to keep their children, denied informed consent, stripped of their right to privacy and dignity, used by a willing medical establishment as training tools for medical students, denied the legal and ethical right of all Canadians to refuse medical treatment and kept ignorant of the legal rights they did have.    Many were treated deplorably by sadistic nurses, midwives and physicians in hospitals during labour, delivery and postpartum recovery.  Some were not given food, water or any kindness while in hospital.  They were called sluts, feeble-minded and immoral.  They were drugged to erase their memories and prevent them from seeking their babies.  They were restrained, often for days, to hospital beds and assaulted in ways that can only be described as rape.  They were told their babies had died so they wouldn’t interfere with the adoption process.  Their signatures were forged on the documents required to relinquish the right to keep their own child.  They were tricked into signing adoption papers after being told the papers they were signing were discharge papers or baptismal certificates (in cases where they were told their healthy babies were dead).  Some were threatened with substantial medical bills if they did not comply.  Coercion and manipulation to sign these papers started the moment they were incarcerated in maternity homes and were amplified when they were drugged and exhausted in the minutes and hours immediately after birth.  Many were betrayed by their own families causing irreparable (and understandable) rifts in families.  Some had families duped, by the very people perpetuating the abuse, into believing they were doing the right thing for their daughters by relinquishing guardianship.  These naive and terrified girls and young women were horribly betrayed by the very people they should have been able to trust – social workers, nurses, midwives, physicians, nuns, church workers, priests and other clergy. 

There is a legacy to this treatment for these now grown women.  Symptoms of post-traumatic stress are prevalent.  Suicide rates are elevated in this population of women.  Substance abuse is one way some cope with both their physical and emotional damage.  Many of them understandably avoid contact with the medical community and shun religion and authority.  Some have joined together and channeled their anger in ways designed to protect other women from similar abductions and mistreatment.  They are lifting the veil of silence surrounding this issue and fighting for acknowledgement, justice and compensation.  They want to see those responsible for the criminal behaviour they suffered held responsible.  Some remain fragile and broken.  The attempt to break the mother/child bond has left scars that never heal.  Humans aren’t designed to withstand this sort of traumatic abuse without negative repercussions. 

The stolen children have not fared well either.  They deal with abandonment issues, lies about their origins and missing medical and genetic information.  They feel both guilt and betrayal knowing what actually happened to their mothers. 

Predominantly teenage girls are still subjected to insidious marketing techniques designed to make them believe they are unfit parents and separate them from their children.  The only thing open about an ‘open’ adoption is that both the mother and the adoptive couple know each others names.  These young mothers have no legal rights once they sign the Consent to Adopt, despite the ongoing promise to them that they can remain involved in their children’s lives.  That rarely happens when the legal, adoptive parents decide the mother is too much of a disruption.  Many of these young mothers find the pain of watching their children call someone else ‘Mommy’ too unbearable.  They are not told of the short term and long term negative health consequences to them from childbirth.  They are not told of the psychological consequences many suffer over their life time after relinquishing their children to adoption.  The period of time after birth when a young mother can change her mind has deliberately been shortened by various provincial governments.   Young girls who do change their minds are made to feel that they have breached a sacred vow to the adoptive couple and the adoption agency.  The adoption industry (and it is an industry) does not act in the best interest of these young mothers.  They act in the best interests of needy, infertile couples. 

Fraud.  Stealing.  Kidnapping.  Confinement. Assault. Sexual Assault.  Denying the right to refuse medical treatment or interference.  These are criminal behaviours.  Blaming changing social mores for this atrocious behaviour is nonsensical.  These were criminal behaviours then as they are now. 

The federal government of Australia held a national inquiry into similar behaviour in that country.  The recently released results were a blistering condemnation of all parties involved.  Canadian women who have been subjected to these abuses deserve the same.  They need answers and they need justice.   This country needs to know how churches, hospitals (secular and religious), medical staff, social services personnel, medical organizations and the Federal, Provincial and Territorial governments, all of whom played pivotal roles in the abuse, behaved.   Without this investigation, and the legal precedent it would set, we can’t protect the human rights of future childbearing girls and women from similar appalling treatment. 

Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson will only say that ‘adoption is a provincial responsibility’.  He could call a federal inquiry into the matter.  He has that power.  All 13 provinces and territories could launch investigations and offer redress.  None of them have.  The Salvation Army, the Presbyterian Church and the United Church have all stated they are “conducting internal investigations”.   Catholic Monseigneur Pedro Lopez-Gallo’s published response [B.C Catholic Paper, June 14, 2012], in a classic example of spin and finding scapegoats, infers that the mass abduction of these babies is a result of the boys and men who ‘violated’ these young women and got them pregnant.  This, apparently, resulted in them not really wanting their babies because they were so distraught over this violation.  He also blames the exclusively female ‘nurses and caregivers’ without acknowledging the role of physicians and clergy, all primarily (but not exclusively) male.  He does not acknowledge that many of the culpable nurses and caregivers were Catholic nuns.  His clear discrimination against single mothers by choice is evident in his statement that “It is not fair that a baby be raised without a father.” Nowhere in his comments does he acknowledge the clear role his church played in this nightmare for over 350,000 Canadian girls (certainly not the ‘over one hundred’ he claims).  He claims these incidents occurred “some 40 or 50 years ago when abortion was illegal and the Charter of Human Rights was under approval by the United Nations but had not yet been implemented’.  It is worth reiterating that these abductions occurred well into the late 1980’s with remnants of this dark era still part of the modern Canadian adoption industry under the guise of open adoption.  It is worth noting that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was enacted in 1948 and that the UN didn’t invent human rights nor did their declaration have to be implemented for good people to understand that the behaviour Monseigneur Lopez-Gallo  is covering up has always been unjust, unethical, illegal and immoral.    It is unbelievable that he would blame the fact that abortion was illegal as his church was instrumental in keeping it illegal.  Access to safe and legal abortion, as well as contraception, was rigorously, successfully and deliberately blocked by the Catholic Church.   The Catholic Church, along with other religious institutions of the time, ensured these young girls were trapped in a misogynist nightmare from which there was no escape.  

Justice for these women is long overdue.  What will that justice look like?  Hanne Andersen of Justice for Mother and Child [] wants criminal charges laid and has asked the RCMP to investigate her case as well as others treated similarly.  Mouvement-Retouvailles [] has been working diligently since 1983 to force the government of Quebec to unseal adoption records.  They offer support to those individuals affected by adoption and encouragement to register with the Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services for access to their adoption records.  As well, they operate their own search registry trying to re-connect mother and child in Quebec.  Valerie Andrews of Origins Canada [] and Karen Lynn of the Canadian Council of Natural Mothers []  have worked tirelessly to seek justice and compensation for themselves and women like them.  Regardless of the work they do each of these courageous women want the truth told and those responsible held accountable.  And the truth must be told.  It is profoundly wrong to further prolong this sad, unresolved problem. 


Birth Trauma Canada is a national organization advocating for honesty in obstetrics and human rights for childbearing women.