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American Adoptive Dad Helps Unwed Korean Mothers
Richard S. Boas, MD
I am an American, a retired ophthalmologist and an adoptive father of a 21-year old Korean daughter. Four years ago, I helped to start a foundation in the United States to help other American families adopt children from Korea. I thought I was helping the world be a better place. But about 2 ½ years ago, I stopped my international adoption efforts when I met a dozen pregnant women in their early twenties at a social service facility in Daegu. Each had already decided to give up her child for adoption. Horrified, I turned my attention around 180 degrees and began working to help mothers keep and raise their children.
I formed the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, which advocates for the rights of unwed pregnant women, unwed mothers and their children in Korea. The goal is to enable Korean women to have sufficient resources and support to keep their babies, if they choose, and thrive in Korean society, rather than feel compelled to give up their children for adoption or risk a life of poverty.
There are many socio-economic reasons for Korea to shift away from its 5,000-year history of patriarchal traditions that stress blood lineage. Even though Korea’s population is declining, seventy percent of unmarried Korean mothers give up their children for adoption. The US figure is 2%. With the exception of Hong Kong, Korea has the lowest birthrate in the world. In 2008, only 466,000 babies were born. That's 27,000 less than in 2007. The country’s population is aging, too. Recently, the Korean Minister of Health and Welfare said that Korea would either have to aggressively promote childbirth or accept more immigration to keep the country’s economy healthy.
And yet, little is being done to encourage unwed mothers to keep their children. In 2005, there were 140,000 single mothers in Korea, according to the Korean Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs. Despite being the world’s 13th largest economy, Korea provides nominal subsidies for single parents; most receive 50,000 KRW. Families that adopt domestically in Korea receive subsidies of 100,000 KRW.
Today, the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, which has an office in Seoul, is making progress toward improving the situation of these mothers and their children. Since our inception, we’ve provided moderate grants for scholarly research, direct support for some women and children (including funding a community-based center for them, which provides counseling and crisis intervention), as well as agencies advocating on their behalf. Recently, we sponsored a workshop and a major forum in Seoul with a total of over 250 people in attendance.
Through our efforts we see that there is a commitment—from academia, policymakers, legislators, organizations directly serving the mothers, advocacy organizations—and the moms themselves, to providing a brighter future for these women and their children, so that they become equal, productive members of Korean society.
For more moms to keep and raise their kids, the following must be addressed in Korea:
Unmarried pregnant women need counseling and resources that will help them make the best decisions for themselves and their babies including education, job training, babysitting, housing assistance, medical and education assistance and childrearing resources. Ae Ran Won Unmarried Mothers Home is an excellent example of the effectiveness of such a program, in which over 80% of mothers keep their children.
Women need to feel safe and free from pressure to relinquish their children. Adoption agency incentives to relinquish, such as free medical care, should be abolished.
Women, regardless of marital status or whether they have children, must be treated equally in the workplace. The validity of unmarried Korean women raising their children needs to be emphasized throughout Korean society and government.
Although Inter Country Adoption (ICA) may be in the best interests of families wishing to adopt, and in the best interests of the agencies themselves, when a mother wants to raise her child, that is generally best for the child, mother and society. This must be emphasized, and support be provided. More mothers keeping and raising their children equals fewer adoptions.
In cases where adoption is desired, ensure that the needs and wishes of the birthmother and child are paramount, and provide a means to encourage domestic adoptions, rather than ICA.
Prevention of unwanted pregnancy: Korea needs to seriously address sex education—and society’s bias against it—of boys as well as girls. There is always a man involved. Many unwed mothers will have a second pregnancy. Intervention/education after the first pregnancy is essential.
Scholarly research is needed on the demographics of these mothers and children, as well as society’s attitude toward them. This is a necessary prerequisite to advocating any social change —to government, opinion makers and the public.
It is important for me to help make more visible the difficult situation of unwed mothers and their children, to help educate, inform, promote discussion, even debate, and serve as a resource in the hope that Koreans positively address the issue, in their own way. After all, these mothers and children are Koreans too, and part of Korea's future.