Stolen Babies: Confronting Spain's Dark Past

  • Share
  • Read Later
Cesar Manso / AFP / Getty Images

A priest blesses children in the village of Castrillo de Murcia in Spain on June 6, 2010

It has been four decades since Pilar Maroto lost her newborn son, but tears still fill her eyes when she speaks of him. She perfectly remembers the moments after his birth in April 1972, when she heard his first cry and then, later, the sudden, devastating news that her little boy had died. On Tuesday, she stood outside Spain's Congress of Deputies and hoped that, finally, someone in power would take seriously her insistence that her baby didn't actually die on that day — instead, he was stolen by the hospital where she delivered him.

Rumors of widespread, organized efforts to steal newborns from their parents have circulated in Spain for decades. But it was only on March 15 when those who believe themselves to be victims of the crime had their first opportunity to tell their stories to the Spanish government. Their testimony, given in an attempt to persuade Spain's legislature to pass a law that would both help those who have had their babies taken from them and make it easier to prosecute perpetrators, is accompanied by legal cases that have, after years of effort, recently been admitted to the regional courts for investigation. Finally, it seems, Spain is ready to confront a horrifying aspect of its recent past.

There appear to be two distinct phases of baby theft that occurred in Spain during the 20th century. The first, which was not only approved by dictator Francisco Franco but also promoted by his government as a means of "improving" the Spanish "race," was politically inspired. In the years after Franco won Spain's civil war, he had tens of thousands of former Republicans and other dissidents arrested. The small children of imprisoned women dissidents were sent first to state-run centers or convents, and then reassigned to families whose values better coincided with the regime's. "The state considered these children in need of re-education," says University of Barcelona historian Ricard Vinyes, who has written a book on the subject. "It was actually proud of these efforts and would publish the results of how many children had been 'welcomed' annually."

Based on the documentation he has uncovered, Vinyes estimates that tens of thousands of children were taken from their parents during a campaign that lasted until the end of the 1940s. In many cases, they were never recovered. "The state allowed these children to change their names, making it harder for them to be located," he says. "And they were brought up being taught that their parents were murderers, so many had no desire to find them."

As the regime became both less virulent about persecuting its enemies and more open to the outside world, the wave of politically motivated thefts receded — but then a new form of baby stealing emerged. In what appear to be thousands of cases throughout Spain, individual doctors and nurses — many of the latter nuns — took newborns from obstetric wards and sold them to prospective adopted parents. That's the claim by victims who, in many cases, can support their theory with death certificates that have clearly been falsified or cemetery documents that contradict what parents were told at the supposed time of death.

Mar Soriano believes her elder sister was one of the stolen children. On Tuesday, she told a commission of legislators how her mother delivered an apparently healthy baby girl on Jan. 3, 1964, at a hospital in Madrid. Later that day, however, her parents were told the child had died, and when her father went to claim his daughter's body, he was told she had already been buried in a mass grave at the Almudena cemetery. "They said she had died of an ear infection," Soriano testified. "Along with Beatriz, there were 10 other children born in the same hospital and during the same month whose cause of death was listed as ear infection." In total, 37 newborns supposedly died at that hospital during January 1964.

Soriano's story is remarkably similar to that of the 1,000 or so people — parents who believe their babies were taken from them, and men and women who believe their siblings or they themselves were stolen — who have joined a suit recently filed in Valencia's provincial court. In each case, the woman gave birth to what she believed to be a healthy child, only to later be told that the infant had died and that it was impossible to see the body. Those babies were then allegedly sold to couples who paid, on average, the equivalent of $8,000. And the people accused of doing the selling are in many cases the very doctors and nurses who had delivered the babies. This is according to testimony given to lawyers and journalists by people who unwittingly bought the babies — many were told the charges were to cover the mother's expenses.

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2