8:49 pm - 10/08/2009

Single parenthood in South Korea: stigma and social pressure

SEOUL, South Korea — Four years ago, when she found that she was pregnant by her former boyfriend, Choi Hyong-sook considered abortion. But after she saw the little blip of her baby’s heartbeat on ultrasound images, she could not go through with it.

As her pregnancy advanced, she confided in her elder brother. His reaction would sound familiar to unwed mothers in South Korea. She said he tried to drag her to an abortion clinic. Later, she said, he pressed her to give the child up for adoption.

“My brother said: ‘How can you be so selfish? You can’t do this to our parents,’ ” said Ms. Choi, 37, a hairdresser in Seoul. “But when the adoption agency took my baby away, I felt as if I had thrown him into the trash. It felt as if the earth had stopped turning. I persuaded them to let me reclaim my baby after five days.”

Now, Ms. Choi and other women in her situation are trying to set up the country’s first unwed mothers association to defend their right to raise their own children. It is a small but unusual first step in a society that ostracizes unmarried mothers to such an extent that Koreans often describe things as outrageous by comparing them to “an unmarried woman seeking an excuse to give birth.”

The fledgling group of women — only 40 are involved so far — is striking at one of the great ironies of South Korea. The government and commentators fret over the country’s birthrate, one of the world’s lowest, and deplore South Korea’s international reputation as a baby exporter for foreign adoptions.

Yet each year, social pressure drives thousands of unmarried women to choose between abortion, which is illegal but rampant, and adoption, which is considered socially shameful but is encouraged by the government. The few women who decide to raise a child alone risk a life of poverty and disgrace.

Nearly 90 percent of the 1,250 South Korean children adopted abroad last year, most of them by American couples, were born to unmarried women, according to the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs.

In their campaign, Ms. Choi and the other women have attracted unusual allies. Korean-born adoptees and their foreign families have been returning here in recent years to speak out for the women, who face the same difficulties in today’s South Korea as the adoptees’ birth mothers did decades ago.

One such supporter, Richard Boas, an ophthalmologist from Connecticut who adopted a Korean girl in 1988, said he was helping other Americans adopt foreign children when he visited a social service agency in South Korea in 2006 and began rethinking his “rescue and savior mentality.” There, he encountered a roomful of pregnant women, all unmarried and around 20 years old.

“I looked around and asked myself why these mothers were all giving up their kids,” Dr. Boas said.

He started the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, which advocates for better welfare services from the state.

“What we see in South Korea today is discrimination against natural mothers and favoring of adoption at the government level,” said Jane Jeong Trenka, 37, a Korean-born adoptee who grew up in Minnesota and now leads Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea, one of two groups organized by Korean adoptees who have returned to their homeland to advocate for the rights of adoptees and unwed mothers. “Culture is not an excuse to abuse human rights.”

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.

For years, the South Korean government has worked to reduce overseas adoptions, which peaked at 8,837 in 1985. To increase adoptions at home, it provides subsidies and extra health care benefits for families that adopt, and it designated May 11 as Adoption Day.

It also spends billions of dollars a year to try to reverse the declining birthrate, subsidizing fertility treatments for married couples, for example.

“But we don’t see a campaign for unmarried mothers to raise our own children,” said Lee Mee-kyong, a 33-year-old unwed mother. “Once you become an unwed mom, you’re branded as immoral and a failure. People treat you as if you had committed a crime. You fall to the bottom rung of society.”

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, said Baek Su-hyun, an official at the Health Ministry. But the social stigma discourages women from coming forward.

Chang Ji-young, 27, who gave birth to a boy last month, said: “My former boyfriend’s sister screamed at me over the phone demanding that I get an abortion. His mother and sister said it was up to them to decide what to do with my baby because it was their family’s seed.”

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 was turned down eight times in job applications,” Ms. Lee said. “Each time a company learned that I was an unwed mom, it accused me of dishonesty.”

Ms. Choi, the hairdresser, said her family changed its phone number to avoid contact with her. When her father was hospitalized and she went to see him with her baby, she said, her sister blocked them from entering his room. When she wrote to him, she said, her father burned the letters. Last year, about three years after the birth, he finally accepted Ms. Choi back into his home.

“That day, I saw him in the bathroom, crying over one of my letters,” she said. “I realized how hard it must have been for him as well.”

Source: New York Times
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amigo_island 8th-Oct-2009 07:23 pm (UTC)
I totally understand why it's a stigma in S. Korea... kids who grow up w/o a father tend to have so many problems, I think it's better in a lot of cases to just opt for adoption or something. it's kind of a shame how common it is in the United States. hopefully those numbers drop soon.
flufy_umbreon 8th-Oct-2009 07:30 pm (UTC)
kids who grow up w/o a father tend to have so many problems
Uh, what kind of problems are these, then?
cynicalxcharm 8th-Oct-2009 07:28 pm (UTC)
Lol, I JUST posted this on Facebook. It's so sad... =(
rawthorne 8th-Oct-2009 07:44 pm (UTC)
These women aren't getting abortions, they're choosing to bear children but find themselves unable to care for them because of social stigma and government programs designed to work against them. Abortion really has nothing to do with it.
rawthorne 8th-Oct-2009 07:46 pm (UTC)
Can you say incentive?
shincaru 8th-Oct-2009 07:44 pm (UTC)

Waiting for moar stupid comments from the privileged.

Dis gon be gud.
bingu_top this.8th-Oct-2009 07:48 pm (UTC)
goldi 8th-Oct-2009 07:48 pm (UTC)
Some of the comments on this post... dios mio .__.
super_genin 8th-Oct-2009 07:49 pm (UTC)
“My former boyfriend’s sister screamed at me over the phone demanding that I get an abortion. His mother and sister said it was up to them to decide what to do with my baby because it was their family’s seed.”

Wow. Just wow. Well it was her baby too, and her body to boot! I am raging at how fucked up their reasoning is.

“My brother said: ‘How can you be so selfish? You can’t do this to our parents,’ ”

He thinks of his parents yet wants to have his nephew/niece killed. Way to go there...
dokidokidaichi 8th-Oct-2009 07:51 pm (UTC)
and she was 33. ಠ_ಠ at 33 why do your parents/brothers get to tell you what to do
typicrobots 8th-Oct-2009 07:55 pm (UTC)
Related Jezebel post. The comments there are probably a bit more level-headed.

OMTD and Jezebel, my two favorite blogs come together!
rawthorne 8th-Oct-2009 08:09 pm (UTC)
That's where I found this and thought it would be of interest here.

Another Jezebel! I'm so pleased!
shincaru 8th-Oct-2009 08:00 pm (UTC)
Would this be

chickadork 8th-Oct-2009 08:01 pm (UTC)
Wow this was a really interesting article. It's pretty sad how the girl is put down as being dishonest and gets all the crap and the dude gets off free more or less. :(

The part about how the American was trying to increase foreign adoptions and then changed his mind was slightly amusing not to be crass or anything.

Edited at 2009-10-08 08:06 pm (UTC)
rawthorne 8th-Oct-2009 08:39 pm (UTC)
And people say we live in a post-feminist era. Sure we do.
smilez4you 8th-Oct-2009 08:03 pm (UTC)
this is so depressing =/
sup_homeskillet 8th-Oct-2009 08:08 pm (UTC)

people in this post are stunning me with their ignorance. I need to step away from the internet.
goldi 8th-Oct-2009 08:12 pm (UTC)
i think i'll save this gif. i'm sure i'll find a use for it soon enough.
strangethoughts 8th-Oct-2009 08:11 pm (UTC)
I don't think that abortion should be illegal there, it's unfair to expect someone to choose between two shity outcomes. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

It's like blaming a rape victim for getting raped, what if this girl didnt' want to get pregnant? Now you're screaming at her that she shouldn't have done it and she shouldn't choose a way out but suffer forever for it.

I'm just pissed at this whole article.
sup_homeskillet 8th-Oct-2009 08:22 pm (UTC)
love the icon, lol
katzsong 8th-Oct-2009 08:14 pm (UTC)
Wondering the reason behind this posting....

Anyway, for a country that most people supposed to be Christian, I'm quite surprised that most of them chose abortion over delivering the baby. The man's family have the right because it's "Their seed"??? What a joke!!
I do not agree with abortion (unless for a clear medical reason), because other than my believe, I still think those fetuses/babies have the right to live, irregardless on how they were conceived and how far along the pregnancy goes.
Adoption is a good alternative but cannot be forced.

I also still believe that to raise a child, it's better to have a complete set of parents a.k.a father + mother. But it can't be forced either. It has to happen naturally. If a woman or man decided to be a single parent, I will give her/him the benefit of a doubt and let them do it.

Somehow this song came to my mind:
"People killing people dying
Children hurtin you hear them crying
Can you practice what you preach
Would you turn the other cheek?
Father Father Father help us
Send some guidance from above
Cause people got me got me questioning
Where is the love?"

(Black Eyed Peas - Where is the love?)
abcangels 8th-Oct-2009 08:19 pm (UTC)
I was raised without any father figure. I don't count my grandpa since my grandma was the first to say "Your mother should choose abortion. Same for your sister." when I was younger.

Did I try to kill myself? no. Did I run away? No. Did I try to kill/rape/hit somebody? No. Did I drop school? No. Did I end up in prison? No. Did I become a bad person? I don't think, so far.

For half of these things, my mother would have killed me. (Totally.)

It was hard for me, especially on Father day. The problem is not only in Korea. I live in Belgium and when I say I don't have any father, people looks at me as if I was some kind of trash. Or pity.

Y'know what? Living without a father figure isn't that bad, as long as you have your mother (or anybody) to love you.
rawthorne 8th-Oct-2009 08:22 pm (UTC)
You're in Belgium too? Join the club. I was actually surprised how many single parent or reconstituted families there are here. Back where I'm from, my parents' divorce was the first one on our block. Imagine the shame.

Incredibly, I too am still a law-abiding citizen.
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