From Ireland to Chile, the Babies of Unwed Mothers Met Horrific Fates

Hundreds found dead in a septic tank, dozens stolen by a Catholic priest. Done “for their own good,” it’s the same excuse society uses to strip women of choice—and power—today.

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Once again, a story has come to light in which “for their own good,” decisions were made for women that took away their choices. As a feminist, choice is the bedrock of my politics. No one can be free as long as women do not get to control their reproduction—whether that be the choice to terminate a pregnancy or to carry that child to term and raise it. But, a recent investigation in Chile is bringing to light the horrific details of women who were denied choice in the cruelest way possible.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, a conspiracy involving a Catholic priest named Gerardo Joannon, as well as gynecologists, social workers, lawyers, and wealthy families worked to convince—some would say coerce—young, single pregnant women into giving up their children for adoption. Those who refused to accede to the coercion were put under anesthesia during labor, and, when they woke up, were told that their babies had died. Those babies were given to couples eager to adopt. As if the story was not horrendous enough, many of the women were betrayed by their own parents, who, convinced that the stigma of being a single mother would be worse than going through the grief of losing a child, were complicit in the schemes to get rid of their own grandchildren. The story has only come to light in Chile in the past month, when the investigative organization CIPER began publishing the results of their investigation on April 11, 2014. (Side note: I would like to thank my colleague at SUNY Cortland, Susan Peterson, for translating the Spanish for me.)

Since CIPER has published its initial report, Father Joannon has been relieved of his clerical duties while he is under investigation, and several Chilean newspapers, radio stations, and television channels have taken up the story. The first mention of it in the Western press has been in The Guardian—“Chile: Catholic Priests Investigated Over Stolen Babies”which presents a good overview of the case, although its coverage has been a bit sensationalistic. The article states that many of these women attended funeral masses for their dead infants, and empty coffins were buried. Joannon denies having presided at such masses. If there were funeral masses held, it’s not clear how many of them there were, nor is it known at this time how many young women unknowingly gave their children up for adoption. Neither is it known how many women were coerced into knowingly giving their children up for adoption. But in some ways, the numbers are besides the point. One is too many.

The ruse was discovered by some of the adoptive children, who went looking for their biological parents. What they discovered were birth certificates that omitted the names of birth parents, and records that didn’t make any sense, leading some to continue their investigations further and to seek help from CIPER. What is obvious from reading the CIPER report is that decades later, these now middle-aged women who had been single and pregnant still don’t want to talk about having been pregnant, and none of them, so far, has welcomed contact from their biological children.

I have tried to imagine how these women—who were told their infants were dead—would now feel knowing that these children are alive. I can appreciate why they couldn’t bear having contact with their ghost children. Though I have not lost a child at birth, I have had a second-trimester miscarriage, and that event positively wrecked me—but I can’t magine how I would have felt if I had carried a baby to term only to lose it. Or worse: to be anesthetized for the birth only to be told that the baby had died while I was unconscious. How does one recover from that? And harder still: If that child were to show up on my doorstep 30 years later, I too might feel that the added grief of discovering that my child was now alive, and that I had missed their entire childhood while I had mourned for my baby, would be more than I could fathom—I just don’t think I could take it.

How many times have we heard “It’s for your own good?” The situation in Chile does not appear so foreign given the current direction that anti-choice activists are pushing us in in this country. We live in a culture where lawmakers legislate on this very premise. Convinced that women don’t understand what is involved in abortion, they pass more and more burdensome laws that force us to listen to lectures about what abortion procedures do to our bodies, or to watch as vaginal ultrasound probes are inserted into us so that we may see the fetus. They try to pass laws that would insist that doctors have to lie to us about the risks for developing cancer if we go through abortions. All of this is done “for our own good,” because legislators and other anti-choice activists are insistent that we are just too misinformed or just plain ignorant to know what we are doing when we choose to terminate pregnancies.

In the case of these Chilean women, stealing their babies was “for their own good” because it helped to expiate the sin of being sexually active. Babies are manifestations of that sin, especially if you are unmarried and female. Your sin is there for the world to see. It was common in many countries, including the United States, to send unwed mothers to special homes where they could live their lives in secret until they could deliver their babies and hand them over for adoption. The women in Chile who resisted this last part—the handing over of their children—despite the pressures of Church and family members, could still be saved from their sin by the heinous practice of lying to them about the fate of their children.

Denied choice, culture instantiates the idea that women count for nothing. In this case, the abstract concepts of honor and virtue were seen as more important than the emotional demolition caused by concrete grief. How long did these women grieve their children? Was it worth having their honor restored to them?

In choosing to rid their daughters of their babies, parents decided that protecting the family name, of retaining control over their girl children, was more important than their daughters’ happiness. I’m sure that many of these parents, aided by consultation with the Church, were convinced that they were doing the right thing. That somehow, they convinced themselves that the pain of losing a child was temporary, whereas the shame of bearing a child out of wedlock was forever. Certainly I am not alone in finding this practice abhorrent. CIPER and the Chilean press are reporting on this as a crime committed against these women. And it was. But it was a crime committed by a male priest, male OB-GYNs, and patriarchal families, who all thought that they were doing the right thing for the woman.

The fact that the kidnapping was perpetrated against women who had held out against the pressure of their parents and the priest in order to assert their rights to have these children seems to make this especially cruel. These were not women who were ambivalent about having these babies. They had come to terms with whatever potential social stigma that child would have caused; thus, I can only assume that these children were “wanted.” Choice was taken away, a reminder that choice is not always about wanting to terminate a pregnancy, but also the choice to carry a baby to term and to raise it.

It is difficult to imagine how anyone is going to find justice in these cases. What is the cost of grief? What is the cost of missing your child’s entire childhood? What is the cost of knowing that those around you thought they knew better than you what you should do? There doesn’t seem to be a way to have a happy ending. Without choice, how can there be one? 

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