Interview with Lisa Sloman Moll
By Peter Hilton, Safeworld Correspondent, June 2012
The military dictatorship of Francisco Franco is remembered in Spain for many things, but one of the most horrific is the abduction of thousands of babies and infants which persisted long after the end of Franco’s rein.
This practice continued from the beginning of Franco’s regime to the 1990s, with over 900 cases currently being investigated. However, some estimate the numbers taken to be as high as 300,000.
However, the abduction of children by the state is by no means a new phenomenon or exclusive to Spain. There are well documented cases of abductions in Argentina, Australia, North America and many other locations globally, with a menagerie of motivations for the kidnappings.
Lisa Slomon Moll, author and investigative journalist, is currently researching and writing a book on the issue of stolen babies.
How long have you been investigating the issue of stolen babies, what prompted you to research the subject, and who is your book aimed at?
I was doing the investigation for my own case at first, relating to losing the custody of my children, but I discovered that there wasn't enough academic work done on the subject.
My work is primarily aimed at raising awareness about 'child removal' in the general public, though I had started off thinking it would be used by the legal and academic community.
I never assumed that the numbers of children who were illegitimately removed by their own governments were so large in Australia and Spain. The numbers in Argentina are in the hundreds, but there it is clear that the removals were done as a form of torture. The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo did a lot of work to prepare the way for legal proceedings, however, so I really needed to take a closer look at their work.
What I found in the process was a large number of institiutional links reaching back to Europe from Argentina and Australia.
These practices were connected in ways many people hadn't considered. The P2 Lodge ('Propaganda Due' - an irregular Italian Freemasonry Lodge) links Argentina and Spain very closely with the death squads and with the illicit adoptions, P2 links to the Catholic Church - which also shows up in forced removals of infants in Australia, and P2 links to the Vatican.
Why do you think it is that there has been so little academic work done on the subject of the abduction and forced removal of children?
There has been some work done on forced removal of children in the context of imperialism and colonized peoples.
In Australia, there has been an uncovering of the history of forced removal with respect to the experience of the aboriginal people. That work has been progressing for about a decade and a half and there are some well respected academics involved. It was necessary to correct a history that was mythologized and which did not reflect the actual experiences of certain groups of people-- indigenous people and women. This colonial aspect of the history intersects with the changing roles of women and alteration in popular conceptions of race.
Women who belong to colonized groups have never really had a strong voice in the governing bodies of their colonial overlords.
Women have succeeded in being heard in the halls of government very recently. This isn't the case only in Australia. First, it was necessary to change the colonial relationship and then it was necessary to empower women in the political sphere in order to get their story told from their own perspective.
In Australia, the aboriginal children have grown up and started asserting their right to claim their own history and cultural heritage. They are adults now, capable of telling the story of how they were stripped away from their mothers, to document the history and make the Australian government take responsibility for what happened.
A new discovery was made in the process of recording this history. Many white women in Australia figured out that they were degraded by the Australian family court system as well. They were denied motherhood subsidies by the system that wanted to take their babies from them. The subsidies were available to most single mothers in Australia, even 30 or 40 years ago, but the women weren't told they qualified. And being very young and scared as new single mothers, these women didn't know they had any options. The findings from the recent government inquiry in Australia suggest that these women weren't told about the subsidies due to a deliberate strategy to obtain more babies for the adoption market.
White single mothers in mother-baby homes in Australia - many of them church affiliated, were systematically disempowered and degraded. They were treated like they were invisible.
Forced removal wasn't always about feeding the adoption market. It was sometimes linked to deliberate attempts to persecute marginal groups and deny them the chance of passing on their culture. It was used by many governments to persecute women who attempted to assert their political rights, or who voiced dissent. This was the case in Spain under Franco and in Argentina during the "Dirty War".
It has only been in the last few years that the world media has recently picked up on issues like those seen in Spain; why do you think it is only now that this story is becoming more prevalent?
The situation of the stolen babies in Spain is interesting because the history of the Franco Regime.
Fascism won the Second World War in Spain, even though these forces were defeated in Italy and Germany.
Fascism had a very close relationship with conservative elements in the Catholic Church in Spain, in Latin America, and in Italy to a certain extent. They had a very limited idea of motherhood and of appropriate roles for women which led them to thinking that women should not have political ideas at all.
The general belief in Franco's Spain was that women who were politically active were unfit to be mothers.
Franco had a psychiatrist who worked for him that assisted in running the prison camps that rebel women were interred in, and this psychiatrist helped conduct the scientific research that underpinned the ideological basis of fascist beliefs towards women. His name was Dr. Antonio Vallejo Najera. Many of the women's prison facilities in Spain were run by nuns of the Catholic Church, so there was a close working relationship there. These are the kinds of facilities in which Republican women political prisoners were interred under the Franco dictatorship.
The accusations of baby theft in Spain often include stories of nuns taking children from their mothers, drugging them, threatening them, or telling the women that their babies had died. For many years, nobody believed the stories or feared investigation. Either Franco was still in charge or there was a formal legal amnesty in place that prevented people from amassing the evidence of the crimes. The problem is that these are what international lawyers call "crimes against humanity", crimes for which there is universal jurisdiction, and crimes for which there can be no stature of limitations or amnesty.
The Spanish amnesty laws conflict with valid bodies of international law which Spain has signed on to. Spain also had a very strong universal jurisdiction law which required judges to investigate crimes against humanity.
Judge Baltazar Garzon is an important name to look up here, because he is a famous judge charged with investigating crimes under the Franco Regime, and he also did some work on the stolen babies cases. He was accused of having overstepped his authority and ended up being tried himself in Spanish courts.
In 2012, Judge Garzon was barred from the legal profession in Spain for 11 years. There were huge public protests in support of Judge Garzon, but he has been barred from practicing in Spain and now works for the International Criminal Court. The cases he was investigating did not move forward.
There is also the fact that DNA tests have only become widely available in the last decade, so it wasn't even possible to verify the crimes of kidnapping that are now being proven. We now have the techniques for proving the genetic relationship of mother and child.
This scientific advancement also enabled the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to find the stolen offspring in Argentina.
The media coverage of these abductions seems to be predominately focused on the narrative of the abductions and the historical context, not on the issue of women’s rights and human rights violations. Why do you think this is and what is your opinion?
I think that there are many different reasons for the differences in the amount of media attention.
Spain itself was a dictatorship without a free press until relatively recently.
Franco ruled Spain with a very tight grip for nearly 50 years. So the type of governing structures in Spain and the lack of an independent civil society is part of the reason.
The weakening position of the Catholic Church is also another reason for the recent exposure of the abuses. As was the case in Ireland, Spain administered many social services through institutions of the Catholic Church which was very hierarchical, authoritarian and patriarchal. Women do not factor in to the leadership of the church at all, and so the abuses that they experience within the organization were swept under the rug. The cases of abuses at the mother-baby homes in Dublin, Ireland, were the subject of recent government inquiries there, as were abuses at the Magdalene Laundries run by the Catholic Church. The women and girls in these laundries had no rights at all.
In Ireland, these women and girls worked 14 hours a day and 7 days a week (without pay), their heads were shaved and they were forced to wear sack cloth uniforms.
They were confined to locked buildings surrounded by walls, and they were interred by their own families in these institutions. They did not even receive education or job training. Some of the Magdalene women were subjected to forced removal of their children, though not all of them were interred because of pregnancy. Taking a closer look at the human rights violations of these women provided a basis for further investigations by secular authorities in Ireland. And because it was a Catholic country with many historical connections to Spain, the awareness of these institutional abuses against women and girls increased in Spain as well. The Catholic Church had lawyers and PR people who actively worked to spin the story away from the perspective of the victims, and this spinning has gone on for many years. Some of that is still going on, but it is getting harder to spin stories the way they used to be handled in the media.
The internet and social media are, in part, responsible for the fact that a hierarchical and authoritarian organization such as the Catholic Church can no longer control the bottom-up direction of news generation today.
Finally, it is still true even in advanced economies of this world, that the field of journalism still is in the hands of men for the most part.
This is true in the United States. I think you would be surprised at what the hard numbers look like, but it is still true that the formal media is owned and operated mostly by men.
Women are emerging as the leaders in social media, though, so the game is changing.
The interpretation of human rights law to reflect the fact that women's rights are indeed human rights is a very recent development in human rights law.
This perspective hasn't been fully integrated into the laws of many countries, even developed ones with sophisticated legal systems. It was really the result of the Women's Convention that was chaired by the US First Lady Hillary Clinton in Beijing a few years back. It is not a reality in the lives of most women yet, unfortunately. But it is beginning to show up in the expectations of the legal and human rights communities at least.
I understand that in your own experience of forced child removal the Catholic Church had a large role to play? Do you feel institutions like this have an obligation to accept and change their attitudes to women and their rights?
It is true that the Catholic Church played a very important role in my life story.
The Sisters of Mercy were the order of nuns who recruited me and my husband to Laredo, where my children were taken away from me illegally.
The Sisters of Mercy were also implicated in the Australian investigation done by the legislature in Sydney, and they were heavily implicated in investigations done on the abuse of women in mother-baby homes in Ireland, where many women had their children forcibly removed.
My mother's life was very negatively impacted by her family's traditional religious beliefs and their views on the 'proper' roles of women, which she did attempt to rebel against. Her rebellion was not terribly effective because the world wasn't really ready for her to challenge the power structures that existed in the 1950s, which was the era during which she had her first child.
My own rebellion was more effective, but I grew up in a different era, when my society was changing very quickly and women had new freedoms. There was more support for my making non-traditional choices. Birth control was available to my generation of women, but had just become widely used. It was illegal when my mother was a young woman.
So the motherhood experience and society's view of it had changed by the time I had my first child. The treatment of women who had babies out of wedlock was necessarily impacted by the change in the number of unwanted pregnancies. Similarly, there was a big change in attitudes toward single mothers who chose to keep and raise their babies. The attitude shifted to one of more tolerance towards single mothers. Motherhood began to be seen as more of a choice than an inevitability linked to married life.
This wasn't necessarily a positive change for poor women, since people's attitudes shifted towards assuming that rich people could parent adequately while poor people couldn't. In reality, parenting involves a lot more than how much money a family has.
Since orphanages benefitted financially from the existence of a lucrative baby market, they perpetuated negative attitudes towards poor women's ability to adequately parent their own children.
They also denigrated social subsidies that enabled poor women to keep their children in difficulty circumstances. The churches were central to perpetuating the idea that only wealthy white and married parents were adequate......and yet they actively discouraged abortion and birth control to ensure a supply of babies that poor women would have to surrender.
These social attitudes were cultivated and the women were victims of the ideology that sustained an adequate supply of healthy white babies forcibly taken from poorer women in their communities.
The humanity of these women wasn't considered, and their psychological and medical needs were given short shrift. The object of these institutions was to get the babies away from their natural mothers.
White expectant mothers in Australia and Canada were targeted without their knowledge, and investigations show that there were secret codes put on their medical files. The evidence is there and it is hard evidence for those who want to look.
It is important for me to make the point that the Catholic Church is not the only religious institution to have been found to be violating the rights of women and children.
The inquiries in Ireland as well as news reports in recently from Canada indicate that there were many sects represented in forced removal cases. But the Catholic Church had a very prominent role in providing social services in Spain and Ireland. They also played a major role in similar cases in Australia and in Latin America.
I do agree that these institutions have an obligation to make some changes. They owe these women at minimum free psychological counselling. The Catholic hierarchy has been very resistant to take responsibility, and so it has been important that governments make efforts to do impartial investigations and to push for accountability.
This was difficult in Spain and Ireland because the church ran virtually all charitable institutions and school in those countries. The culture has become more secular only in the last two decades. Both of these countries have numerous forced removal stories as late as the mid-1990s.
Spain only became a democracy in the 1970s, after nearly a half century of dictatorship. And the last of Ireland's mother-baby homes only closed in the late 1990s. This isn't ancient history.
The governments of these countries cannot allow the churches to content themselves with internal investigations because there have been too many abuses and too many cover-ups.
This accountability must be done in a transparent and impartial way, and the body that does it has to include a fairly representative number of female and outside investigators. These practices have resulted in lifelong trauma to the women who had their infants stripped from them, many of whom have Post Traumatic Stress Disorders a result of the brutal way they were handled.
The adoptees too have psychological issues which are often the result of being denied full knowledge of their own true identities.
They are victims and should not be forced to assume the financial burden associated with psychological treatment. Any apologies are meaningless unless there is a corresponding change in the practices that led to the mistreatment of these expectant mothers.
In the last few weeks the first indictment of those involved in the abduction of children in Spain occurred, do you think this will lead to further cases of litigation both in Spain and in other countries?
General Videla of Argentina, one of the "Dirty War" perpetrators, was tried and convicted to life in prison in Argentina this past summer.
There were a few less high profile perpetrators also tried recently in Argentina, and the trials are just finishing up now.
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo were very important in laying the groundwork for the legal case, which they have been doing since the late 1970s.
Many people don't realize that these women didn't know what happened to their children and grandchildren for more than a decade. The government sent them in circles and didn't help them with their investigations.
It took many years for the women to realize that there might be some complicity, and that this is the reason that the government wasn't more helpful to them.
The Argentine government had known all along what happened to many of their children and grandchildren--- and they knew they were dead.
Still, the "Grandmothers" were not told any of this. In reading the detailed accounts of some of the women who searched for their disappeared children and grandchildren, I realized the role Argentine adoption laws and corrupt family courts played in the crimes committed against these women.
There was a lot of corruption in the adoption system, and it exists this way in much of Latin America.
The structure of this system made it very difficult for the Grandmothers to find the information they needed to locate the children or prosecute kidnapping charges. There were lots of legal obstacles to overcome and it took decades.
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have found slightly over 100 of the missing children. They estimate over 500 of the babies were taken. Some of them might have been placed in adoptions in other countries, so there is little chance they will be found in Argentina. The Grandmothers are getting very old now, and some of them are passing on.
Keeping with the theme of the legal implications of this issue, have you heard of any successful cases of reconciliation or prosecution regarding cases of stolen children such as those of Spain?
Thousands of Unresolved Cases
Spain has thousands of unresolved cases which have been filed with the legal system, but are waiting for investigation. There are estimates of as many as 200,000 could have been illegally taken. There is hard physical evidence in many of the Spanish cases.
The reason the cases haven't moved faster is because of obstructionism in the legal system.
What could someone reading either this article or your work do to help find a solution to this issue? What would you hope someone reading your work could take away from it?
I think it is very important, in an age when we can exercise some control over the number and timing of pregnancies, to come to the realization that adoption is not a solution to poverty.
Social attitudes that look at poor mothers as part of the supply chain for the adoption industry are highly problematic from a number of perspectives.
Poor people have a right to a family life and poor women are limited in the numbers of children they can have in a lifetime. Taking their babies from them might have the paradoxical result of encouraging them to have more babies than they would otherwise choose to have (as insurance that they will get to raise at least one of them to adulthood). This is a problem for any efforts at population control.
Since the economic advancement of women relies upon women being able to delicately balance the time that they spend on production AND reproduction, we are in fact setting them back on the path to economic advancement by ripping their limited number of offspring from them. This practice leaves them with a profound sense of violation and inefficacy. It undermines the sense of control women have over their lives and bodies which results in more psychological damage than any rapist could ever do. It is essentially genocidal since it removes the possibility of transferring a culture to another generation.
This doesn't make poor women better off in terms of wealth simply because they have one less mouth to feed, though this is the way many people view the situation. It makes their kinship network poorer, and can destroy the social fabric of an entire community altogether.
The adoption industry should be honest with the public......very few of the children being adopted since the introduction of birth control are true orphans. Many of them are children of poor parents who were unable to protect their legal rights to a family life.
A lot of the children who are placed with adoptive parents actually have living parents.....sometimes two of them.......which means, by definition, that they are NOT ORPHANS.
International adoptions are particularly problematic, because the children are often taken from poor parents in other lands to be adopted by wealth parents in rich countries.
Those children, and all of the promise they represent for the continuation of the culture in their natal land, are lost for good. Adoption propaganda tells us that the child will have a better life in a wealthier country, but there is no guarantee of this. Nobody knows whether the adoptive placement is indeed a better life than the natural parents would have been able to provide.....a wealthier one perhaps, but not necessarily culturally richer.
Forced removal of children can be genocidal under certain conditions.
The legal definition of genocide does not apply to the the concept of voluntary adoption at all. I do have to state, however, that many of these adoptions were not voluntary. There is ample evidence of coercion and deception, even drugging in some cases.
When the child is born into a group that is not part of the cultural mainstream, removing that child from one cultural milieu and placing it with a family that belongs to a different cultural group meets the technical definition of genocide under international law.
It is basically illegal and has been since the Second World War. But such adoptions still happen fairly frequently.
The Genocide Convention created a few loopholes it seems.
Many of the legal decisions underlying the Genocide Convention apply only to biological genocide and not cultural genocide. We have to make people understand that parenting is an institution of cultural as well as biological reproduction; the bonding process begins long before birth, and when it is interrupted, there are often negative effects that last for life. The best place for babies to be is with their natural family members.
I have nothing against adoption when an infant's parents are in fact deceased, but there are folks who are deliberately removing babies from mothers and fathers that are alive.
Social workers, lawyers and adoption agencies can earn good commissions from placing babies with adoptive parents, but they earn nothing out of improving the life chances of the birth mother so that she can keep her baby.
The incentives are wrong. These babies are ripped away from their birth mothers without consent, and essentially sold to the highest bidder. This has some very profound long term consequences on the lives of both the birth parents and the adoptive families, many of which are quite negative. It is also evidence of corruption in the family courts.
In terms of the legalities involving genocide, many countries already incorporated into domestic law the international legal standard forbidding the removal of children from one group to another by force. It is technically illegal in the US to remove a child from a Native Anerican community to another; there is a federal law against that. However, it still happens.
Once you can corrupt the courts for irregular adoptions, you can corrupt child custody cases of all sorts. Many family courts are not open to the public, and such corruption can be hard to uncover and uproot.
This kind of corruption can facilitate human trafficking for child sex rings and organ trafficking rings. Irregular adoptions are only the tip of the iceberg.
Peter Hilton is Global Correspondent for Safeworld. He is studying history at the University of Leicester, UK, with the aim of converting to a postgraduate law course and hopes to specialise in in Human Rights Law.
"It is through writing and increasing awareness that I hope to change the attitudes of men to improving women’s rights and allowing women to achieve full equality. In addition to this, it is through pursuing a career in Human Rights Law that hopefully, I will be able to make an active difference and improve the status of women wherever possible."