During the post WWII “Baby Scoop” decades, it was common practice in Canadian hospitals for unwed mothers to be denied the opportunity to see, hold, or feed their babies. Babies were often taken directly from the delivery table at birth without any warning to the mother; with sheets, pillows, or other means used to prevent her from seeing her baby. This was to prevent the mother from keeping her baby, to ensure that she would surrender her baby for adoption. It was not done to married mothers, only those who had been targeted and identified by the hospital or a social worker as an unmarried mother. This was done BEFORE any legal documents were signed.
The act of taking an infant from his/her mother was compounded when the mother was unable to obtain access to her baby even in those few cases where she was aware that she had this right. Most mothers were never informed that they had the inherent parental right to see, hold and feed their babies. Accounts often include hospital staff telling mothers they had no such rights. Mothers and babies were often moved to separate floors or other remote locations away from each other; mothers often told untruths regarding the whereabouts and location of their babies. Some mothers were shown multiple babies at different times by different nurses in hospital nurseries. Male babies were routinely circumcised without parental consent. Mothers were often told that it was best that they did not see their babies; that they had no right to see their infants; and/or they could not see their infants until after they signed surrender papers. Some mothers were told their baby had died; believing this to be true all their lives until their adult children contacted them for reunion years later.
Routine hospital practices of forcibly removing babies from their mothers directly from delivery tables, and withholding a newborn infant from his or her mother at birth not only violated her parental rights, but was an illegal act:
Criminal Code of Canada, Section 281: “Abduction of Person Under Fourteen – Every one who, not being the parent…unlawfully takes, entices away, conceals, detains, receives or harbours that person with intent to deprive a parent of the possession of that person is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years”.
The New South Wales Parliamentary Inquiry in Australia examined this practice in its Final Report, pp. 97-104:
Access to the baby at and after delivery
7.30 Many women providing evidence to this inquiry were prevented from having access to their babies during and after labour. As explained above, the marking of a woman’s chart ‘baby for adoption’ was intended as a guide to hospital staff on her treatment, including restricting access to the baby.
Was the denial of access to the baby unethical or unlawful?
7.59 Refusing a mother’s access to the baby was common practice until the late 1970s. The practice was intended to prevent maternal bonding and make the relinquishment easier. In the 1950s and early 1960s, there is little evidence that this practice was challenged. By the mid 1960s individual practitioners and the AASW took a stand against the practice.
The Committee believes that by this time there was enough informed criticism to warrant a more rigorous examination of the suitability of the practice by adoption professionals. By the mid 1970s, the NSW Standing Committee on Adoption also strongly and publicly opposed the practice. By this time, it would clearly have been highly unethical to deny access. …
7.60 The Committee believes professionals failed to act quickly enough to halt what was already recognised as a damaging and inappropriate practice. As discussed above, the Committee is particularly concerned about the failure of the Hospitals Commission and Health Commission to prevent the practice and considers that more could have been done to ensure hospital practices reflected the patient’s needs.
7.61 Mothers argued that the practice denied their legal rights as guardian of the child. As explained above, the Health Commission stated that the mother was the legal guardian of the child until the signing of the consent form. Justice Richard Chisholm agreed that the mother remained guardian of the child until she gave consent and that preventing her from having access to the child prior to the consent “would not have been authorised”.
7.62 The Committee therefore believes that the practice of denying a mother access to her child prior to the signing of consent was unlawful. Those professionals who contributed to the process where access was denied were clearly acting unlawfully.
7.63 Whatever the rationale for the practice, the Committee believes that in all cases women should have been consulted about this issue prior to the birth and that a woman should not have been denied access to her child if she requested it. Therefore, failure to grant access constituted an unlawful and unethical action.