Australia’s prime minister has delivered a national apology to the thousands of unwed mothers who were forced by government policies to give up their babies for adoption.
Speaking in the Great Hall of Parliament House on Thursday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard apologized on behalf of the nation to more than 800 people affected by the forced adoption policy.
An apology was recommended a year ago by a Senate committee that investigated the impacts of the now-discredited policies.
The report found that between World War II and the early 1970s unwed mothers in Australia were pressured, deceived and threatened into giving up their babies so married couples could adopt them.
The report also found that the federal government had played a part by failing to provide unwed mothers with full welfare benefits to which a widow or deserted wife would have been entitled until 1973.
"Today this Parliament on behalf of the Australian people takes responsibility and apologizes for the policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, which created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering," Gillard told the audience.
"We acknowledge the profound effects of these policies and practices on fathers and we recognize the hurt these actions caused to brothers and sisters, grandparents, partners and extended family members," she said.
"We deplore the shameful practices that denied you, the mothers, your fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children," she added. Her speech was greeted with cries, cheers and a standing ovation when it was finished.
The committee said the number of forced adoptions numbered in the thousands with rates as high as 60 percent in the late 1960s among unwed mothers.
Gillard also committed 5 million Australian dollars ($5 million, 3.8 million euros) to support services for affected families and to help families reunite.
The seven-member Senate committee began investigating the government's role in forced adoption in 2010 after the Western Australian state parliament apologized to mothers and children for the flawed practices in that state from the 1940s until the 1980s. Five out of eight such governments have since apologized.
In 2011, Roman Catholic hospitals in Australia apologized for the forced adoptions and urged state governments to accept financial responsibility.
Gillard retains leadership
Also on Thursday, Prime Minister Gillard retained the leadership of the ruling Labor Party after pressure from within government to hold a leadership vote.
Gillard announced the vote in parliament on Thursday, after a senior cabinet minister openly called for a ballot.
"I have determined that there will be a ballot for the leadership," said Gillard, adding that the vote would take place within hours and throwing down the gauntlet to rivals. "In the meantime, take your best shot," Gillard said.
No other member of the party challenged the position.
Leadership speculation has been rife in recent weeks, with Gillard and the party trailing badly in polls behind the opposition Liberal-National party, led by Tony Abbott. A major defeat has been predicted for Labor in the September election, with poll ratings indicating that Labor could lose some 20 seats in the 150-strong parliament.
hc, jlw/kms (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)