Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Thursday delivered an apology to hundreds of victims of Australia’s forced adoption policy.

Tens of thousands of babies of unmarried, mostly teenage mothers, were forcibly taken by the state and given to childless married couples under the policy, driven largely by religious groups in the post-WWII period.

Speaking in front of hundreds of mothers, Gillard said the “shameful” policy “created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering”.

“To you, the mothers who were betrayed by a system that gave you no choice and subjected to manipulation, mistreatment and malpractice, we apologise,” she said to the crowd, many of whom broke down in tears.

“We deplore the shameful practices that denied you, the mothers, your fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children.”

The apology follows a Senate inquiry into forced adoptions which revealed that as many as 225,000 babies were removed between 1951 and 1975 in Australia, then a conservative and predominantly Christian nation, reports AFP.

Many women said they were coerced into signing away their children, with some claiming they were drugged or had their signatures forged.

Christine Cole, who lost a child through forced adoption and is now the head of the Apology Alliance, told ABC the apology was long overdue.

“I had my baby taken from me in 1969, and I think the use of the term forced adoption polarises the actual phenomenon of what was going on,” she told AFP.

“What was going on was kidnapping children, kidnapping newborn babies from their mothers at the birth, using pillows and sheets to cover their face, drugging them as I was drugged.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Julia Gillard emerged victorious from a leadership crisis and ensured she will lead the government into a September 14 election after former leader Kevin Rudd conceded, reports Reuters.