In 2007, 7,774 babies were born out of wedlock in South Korea, 1.6 percent of all births. (In the United States, nearly 40 percent of babies born in 2007 had unmarried mothers, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.) Nearly 96 percent of unwed pregnant women in South Korea choose abortion, according to the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs.
Of unmarried women who give birth, about 70 percent are believed to give up their babies for adoption, according to a government-financed survey. In the United States, the figure is 1 percent, the Health and Human Services Department reports.
The government pays a monthly allowance of $85 per child to those who adopt children. It offers half that for single mothers of dependent children.
The government is trying to increase payments to help unwed mothers and to add more facilities to provide care for unmarried pregnant women. But the social stigma discourages women from coming forward.
Families whose unmarried daughters become pregnant sometimes move to conceal the pregnancy. Unwed mothers often lie about their marital status for fear they will be evicted by landlords and their children ostracized at school. Only about a quarter of South Koreans are willing to have a close relationship with an unwed mother as a coworker or neighbor, according to a recent survey by the government-financed Korean Women’s Development Institute.
I'm currently reading "I Wish for You a Beautiful Life: Letters from the Korean Birth Mothers of Ae Ran Won to Their Children" (book review to come in a later post!) and this theme of the social stigma of unwed mothers in Korea is very apparent in the words of these birth mothers. As I read these letters, there is a sense of desperation, unsure of what other choice they have. Many opt for their children to be adopted outside of Korea, for fear that if they are adopted domestically, and it is ever found out, the child may face severe scrutiny.
It's hard to imagine, living in a country where single motherhood is so common, that this social stigma is enough to force some of these woman into adoption. Many say that because they are disowned by their family, abandoned by their significant other, and have no other financial means of supporting themselves, because, most employers won't hire a single mother and many babysitters won't care for children of single parents, and there is little support from the government, they have no other choice but to give up their child.
It is clear that I wholeheartedly believe that adoption is the right choice in many cases. Even if the government did more and the culture was more accepting, it is not to say that some of these babies would still have been given up. But if these unwed mothers did not suffer from the ill effects of single parenthood within the Korean culture, how many children would be able to remain with their birth mothers?
It is clear that something needs to change. It is clear that even without the social stigma, clearly, some of these women could have made better choices that would not have ended with pregnancy. That's not to say that some of these women, however, could not control the circumstances in which they became pregnant.
I cannot possibly cover all of the issues here within this post. But what I can say is that it saddens me that more is not being done within the Korean culture to help support (not just financially, but emotionally too) mothers who find themselves facing single parenthood. Let me be clear that I greatly respect the Korean culture, as I myself am a part of it, and proud to be a Korean-American. I just wish that in this particular situation, there were better options.
As an a adoptee who lived with my birth family for the first month of life before being abandoned at an orphanage, I often wonder what circumstances they were under to make such a decision. I believe it was the right one in my case, as I believe I am where I am supposed to be, but after learning of this stigma that exists, I can't help but question the reasons behind it. Was she too poor to care for me? Did my father abandon her after he found out she pregnant? Was he married to someone else? Did she hide the pregnancy for fear her family would abandon her? Or did she know that keeping me and raising me on her own would cause great hardship in both our lives, so therefore, made the best decision for the both of us?
I will probably never know the answer to any of these questions. But I hope that one day, single mothers in Korea will have more of a voice, get more of the help and support they need, get to keep their family name, marry or re-marry if they wish, but more importantly, feel like they have the option to raise their baby by themselves if they so choose.
As talk still lingers that South Korea will soon shut their doors to international adoption, I can only hope and pray that something is done soon.