March 2021

Differential management of births: families, hospices and adoption

Reproduction is the basis of any species’ biology, but in us, its variable biological expression is highly influenced by socio-cultural factors. For centuries, that interaction between biology and culture conditioned both the situation of women as reproducers, workers and citizens, and also that of their offspring, divided into those integrated into families and those taken in by hospices, to whom we could now add those born to surrogate mothers.  

In Western Europe, hospices appeared in the Middle Ages and, from the Renaissance, were identified by figures of swaddled children such as those which adorn the famous Florence Hospice, founded in 1421, or those which remain at the old Orphanage in Madrid in what is now O’Donnell Street, which illustrate this Work. In many parts of rural Spain the custom of swaddling newborns at home endured into the mid 20th century.

The inflexibility of the patriarchal system and the Church established strict social control of extra-matrimonial female sexuality, enforced differently depending on the period, town or personal circumstances, even solved by marriage, to which the women came already pregnant. Single mothers were often forced by their own families to abandon newborns in hospices, where child mortality was dreadful even until recent times, and where those who survived without being adopted were generally marked for life as «illegitimate» or «foundling». 

The main causes of abandoning children were single motherhood and poverty, though it was common for the babies to have some kind of clue on them to allow their identification should their mother wish to recover them, as can be seen in the following extracts taken from the register at the Orfelinato de El Bierzo (León, Spain) (document 1700-1825, H: Torno 30-3-2786):

 «I’m christened, my name is María Josefa de la Iglesia: I don’t know who my father is, nor my mother. Signed in Maragatería, 7th March 1776»

«On 1st May 1778, Ana María Álvarez, unmarried, came to me and said she had come to take away a child left for a foundling at the gate […] and when asked about the clothes the child was dressed in, I realised from her answers it was the child in the register […]. And she declared she wanted to take her child to bring up herself, I handed the child over.»

As from the 1970s, social change together with the incorporation of women into the urban workforce and more effective fertility control, are linked to a big drop in the number of unwanted births and abandonment of children in Spanish and European hospices. This was accompanied by an increase in the age of cohabitation and marriage, making it more difficult for these older couples to conceive and leading to a rise in applications for adoption, which, for a long time, involved the immoral sale of babies for adoption.

Thus, it is estimated that in Spain between 1940 and 1990, as many as 300,000 babies were stolen to sell to couples who wanted to adopt. The amount of money and the way to hand over the baby were decided on at a first meeting, as well as how to simulate pregnancy (a cushion on the stomach, fake nausea…). The children came from deliveries where the parents were told that the newborn had died and been buried. The fake delivery of the adoptive mother was assisted by a midwife or nurse who was paid to provide a birth certificate so that the baby could be registered in the civil register.

Following a lengthy legal process, the associations of affected families managed to take those responsible to court (doctors, nurses, lawyers, civil servants, and priests and nuns). In Madrid, the spotlight was on doctor Vela who was declared guilty of «trafficking with babies» of by the Audiencia Provincial de Madrid in October 2018, although he was not sentenced because of statute limitation after 31 years. His assistant Sister María, died three days after being summonsed.

Given that our scientific field of interest is human reproduction as a bio-cultural phenomenon which has been and is of vital importance for our species, we, as professional bio-anthropologists and human ecologists –and as people-,  need to know about, think about, and form an opinion about this kind of situation where the lives of newborns are traded as «commercial objects», and whose latest modality is taking children from so-called «surrogate bellies» (from women in vulnerable or marginal situations) to their adoptive parents who page large amounts for the deal to third parties.


Cristina Bernis is co-director of the Virtual Museum of Human Ecology