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Domestic Adoption Is Still Uncommon in South Korea
By Steven Borowiec
October 7, 2013 / WSJ
SEOUL—When South Korea amended its adoption law in August of last year, it was intended to reduce unregistered adoptions of children overseas.
A year later, it appears to have accomplished that with an unintended side effect: a drastic increase in the number of babies abandoned anonymously by their mothers.
In the first seven months of this year, 152 infants were abandoned in South Korea, up from 62 in the same period of 2012, according to Ministry of Health and Welfare data. The increase has been attributed by some to the new Special Adoption Law, which stipulates that infants can't be put up for adoption without their births being registered with the government. It also requires that mothers remain with their newborns for a minimum of seven days before putting them up for adoption.
Activists for adoptee rights and government officials argue that more transparency was needed in the adoption process and question the causal link between the new law and the rise in abandoned infants.
Large numbers of babies were sent overseas from South Korea for adoption in the wake of the Korean War of the early 1950s, when the country was poor and rebuilding after the disastrous conflict. After the war, the country underwent rapid development but continued to send thousands of children a year abroad for international adoptions through the 2000s.
Part of the reason for the high rate of international adoptions is that domestic adoption is still uncommon in South Korea, where Confucian values make many families reluctant to raise a child from outside their bloodline. It also remains taboo for women to birth or raise children out of wedlock. About 90% of South Korean adoptees are born to unwed mothers.
Some abandon their babies rather than face the social discrimination of being an unwed mother in a society that, for all its economic development, is still socially conservative.
In recent years, many abandoned infants have been left at a so-called "baby box" in Seoul, a place where mothers can anonymously leave their newborns for adoption.
Pastor Lee Jong-rak operates the baby box in his church in southwest Seoul. On a side alley, mothers can open a letterbox style door, place their baby onto a clean white towel inside, shut the door and press a button to ring a bell that alerts Mr. Lee or one of his staff members to the presence of the baby.
Before the Special Adoption Law was passed, Mr. Lee says the baby box received an average of about two newborns per month. Over the past year, that number has risen to about 19, he says.
Mr. Lee has been operating his own parish for the past 15 years and the baby box since 2009. He was inspired to open it after he was awoken late one cold autumn night by a neighbor who phoned to inform him that a newborn had been abandoned in a cardboard box outside his church. He says the incident opened his eyes to the desperation of young mothers in South Korea and what he says is the need for an option to protect the safety of infants.
Nowadays, Mr. Lee says, there are usually two or three babies at his facility on any given day. He and his team of staff and volunteers provide round-the-clock care for the newborns for two or three days before they are transferred by the police and then to the local district office. The children are taken from there to a hospital for a medical check and then placed in an orphanage.
Mr. Lee, 60, argues that mothers who don't feel able to inform their parents or the government of their children's births need another option. "The law must be changed, because if it isn't, there will only be more abandoned babies," he said.
Proponents of the Special Adoption Law argue that South Korea needed to be brought in line with international adoption standards requiring registration of births. In the past, mothers were able to take their babies directly to adoption agencies without registration. Those children could then be adopted by overseas families with only limited information about their origin and the circumstances of their births.
Jane Jeong Trenka is president of Truth & Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea, one of the driving forces behind the legal revision. She says anonymous adoption compromised the rights of children.
"Children have the right to an identity," she said.
Ms. Jeong Trenka is an adoptee herself, born in South Korea in 1972 and adopted by an American family as an infant. She grew up in the U.S., but as one of very few Asian children in her community, she often felt displaced and unwelcome. She eventually decided to move back to South Korea in her 20s to try to find her birth mother, along with a more complete sense of who she is and where she came from.
The experience led her to dedicate her adult life to advocating for more transparent adoption practices in South Korea.
An objective of the Special Adoption Law was to increase the number of babies who remain with their birthparents, in line with The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. South Korea ratified the convention in May this year. It recommends that babies who can't remain in their birth families be adopted within the country of their birth, and only adopted internationally if that isn't practicable.
The number of South Korean children adopted internationally has been in gradual decline for years, according to the country's Ministry of Health and Welfare. From a peak of 8,680 in 1986, in 2012, 755 children were adopted by overseas families, down from 916 the year before. The ministry is projecting a total of 300 for this year, with the decrease likely attributable to the enactment of the Special Adoption Law.
Lee Hyun-joo, head of the adoption measures team at the ministry, says it is too early to say that there is a direct relationship between the Special Adoption Law and the rise in newborns being abandoned.
"The most important thing is for children to grow up in stable families, so our adoption laws are created with that in mind. According to the new law, as children grow up their rights are more fully guaranteed by law," she said.
David Smolin, director of the Center for Children, Law and Ethics at the Cumberland School of Law in the U.S., says that South Korean society needs a change in its view of unwed mothers and more support for them so that the rights of both families and children can be protected.
"Under the prior system, secrecy was a cover under which the rights of children and original family members—especially unwed mothers—were sacrificed based on other interests," he said.
Ms. Jeong Trenka says that the increase in abandonments isn't due to the law itself, but young mothers' lack of accurate information on the law. She argues that women need to be informed about a process called partial registration, which allows for births to be registered in a document that isn't accessible to anyone but the mother herself.
Once a baby is adopted, the birth is removed from the mother's records, meaning women wouldn't necessarily need to worry about their future husband or parents-in-law finding out about them having given birth.
"It's the misperception of the law that has caused the problems, not the law itself. It's a matter of educating these mothers about how the law really works," Ms. Jeong Trenka said.
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