Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

A tangled web: stealing newborns in twentieth-century Spain

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden


National Library of Medicine description: Full-length portrait of a newborn infant, lying on its back, supported in the hands of a nurse (?).
Newborn infant. Photo by United States Children’s Bureau, 1940s. National Library of Medicine Images from the History of Medicine. The National Library of Medicine believes this item to be in the public domain.

“We were Europe’s baby supermarket and babies were stolen for sixty years.”1
— Inés Madrigal


Twentieth-century Spain was a politically unstable, highly divided nation. In 1931, King Alfonso XIII abdicated after the results of elections were interpreted as a plebiscite on abolishing the monarchy.2 What followed was “one weak government after another.”3

In 1936, with a socialist coalition governing Spain, “army leaders, backed by some of the country’s wealthiest families, decided they…had enough of democracy, and more than enough of socialism.”4 Army general Francisco Franco (1892–1975) was chosen to lead the revolt.

The resulting civil war (1936–1939) was a manifestation of the divisions in Spain. The legal, socialist government (the “Republicans”) was supported by party-line communists, Trotskyites, anarchists, socialists, and some low-level Catholic clergy. The rebels (the “Nationalists”) consisted of the Spanish army, large landowners, and the Catholic church hierarchy. The Republicans got support from international volunteers, Mexico, and the Soviet Union. The Nationalists were supported by ground and air forces of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Half a million people died in the war. Of these, 20% (100,000) were killed in battle. The remaining 400,000 died in air raids or from executions or disease.5 The Republicans (called “Reds” by their enemies) confiscated church property and killed about 10,000 bishops, priests, nuns, and monks.6 The Nationalists (“Fascists”) imprisoned and often murdered anyone who did not demonstrate Nationalist sympathies. Providing food to a Republican fighter could result in a long prison term.

After the Nationalist victory in 1939, the ruling party found other ways of punishing opponents and preventing children from “inheriting” anti-government ideas from their parents. Pregnant woman who were Republican sympathizers, socialists, atheists, or unmarried, were considered “degenerate.” They could not be good mothers, and their newborns needed to be adopted into “better” families.7

Some women were heavily sedated at the time of delivery and then told that their (liveborn) baby had been born dead. Other women saw and heard their newborns, who were then taken “to see the doctor,” and were later told that their baby died of a congenital anomaly. Some women delivered twins but were told that they gave birth to a singleton, and that they must have been confused.

Parents were forbidden to see their “dead” child. The San Ramón Maternity Hospital kept a frozen newborn cadaver to show parents who insisted on seeing their child. One mother, decades later, recalled how her “newly dead” infant was ice-cold. The parents were not permitted to be at the infant’s burial. Some of these infants’ coffins, exhumed decades later, contained stones or adult remains.8 This happened in maternity hospitals across Spain. The participants in this conspiracy were doctors, nuns, midwives, and priests. It has been estimated that as many as 300,000 babies were stolen from their parents.9 These babies were then sold to prospective adoptive parents. This criminal activity, which started in 1939, may have continued until the 1980s,10 1990,11 or 1999.12 The adoptive parents were told that the baby had been left at an orphanage without any information (sin datos) about their origins. One gynecologist admitted destroying any records before the child was sold to the adoptive parents. He was tried in 2018 and was found guilty of kidnapping and falsifying birth records. The statute of limitations on his crimes had expired, and he received no penalty.13

The Spanish public has been aware of this national scandal since 2012, when several men, “adopted” as babies, learned the truth behind their adoptions. Spanish law limits access to birth records until the patient (the woman who delivered) has been dead for at least twenty-five years.14

The story of stolen babies is not unique to Spain. Nazi Germany kidnapped 200,000 Aryan-looking Polish children to be adopted by German parents.15 Illegal removals and adoptions have taken place in China, Ethiopia, Chad, India, Guatemala,16 Australia,17 Canada,18 Norway, Sweden, Finland,19 and the US.20



  1. Andrei Talpaga. “Between 1939 and 1989 over 300,000 newborns were sold in Spain,” historyofyesterday.com, 2012.
  2. Alfonso XIII-Wikipedia.
  3. Madeleine Albright. Fascism: A Warning, New York: Harper Collins, 2018.
  4. Albright, Fascism.
  5. Kimberly Josephson. “Stolen babies in Spain: Human rights abuses and post-transitional justice, 2013. shelf1.library.cmu.edu/HSS/3013/91491880.pdf.
  6. Albright, Fascism.
  7. Ruta Sepetys. The Fountains of Silence, New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2019.
  8. NA. Spain’s Stolen Babies, This World-BBC, 2012. [This is an informative, well-presented film.]
  9. Sepetys, Fountains.
  10. Sepetys, Fountains.
  11. Raphael Minder. “Spain confronts decades of pain over lost babies,” NYT, Jul 6, 2011.
  12. Carolina Escudero. “Stolen babies in Spain: Mediated stories for recovery. Mothers’ activism through online campaigns,” Int J Business Soc Sci, 11 (3), 2020.
  13. BBC, Stolen Babies.
  14. NA. “Spain: ‘stolen babies’ scandal finally goes to trial.” France 24, 2017.
  15. Marc Hillel. Au nom de la Race, Paris: Fayard, 1975.
  16. Usman Ojedokun and Ewere Atoi. “Baby factory syndicates: An emerging child adoption racket in Nigeria,” Afr J Psycholog Study of Soc Issues, 2016.
  17. Stolen Generations. Wikipedia.
  18. NA. “Why did Canada separate indigenous families from their children?” NPR, 2022.
  19. Rebecca Partida. “Suffering through the educational system. The Sami boarding schools,” laits.utexas.edu, ND.
  20. Orphan Train. Wikipedia.



HOWARD FISCHER, MD, was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.


Spring 2022  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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