Single moms: In South Korea, adoption remains priority, but attitudes are shifting
In South Korea, societal pressure still leads most unwed mothers to give up their children for adoption. But more are keeping their kids, sparking a debate about how to offer support.
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Adoptee Stephen Morrison, who founded a group promoting domestic adoption in Korea, paints a different picture. "More often than not," he says, "it's the mothers themselves who cannot live with the shame."
According to a government survey in 2005, about 38 percent of women who sent their child for adoption said they would not have done so under better financial circumstances.
The government is seeking to expand the number of state-run, single-parent support centers to 16 nationwide from the current six. But it has gotten flak for its perceived emphasis on domestic adoption.
Adoptive parents receive about $86 per month. Unwed mothers can receive only half that, depending on income level and only if they are not already on state welfare.
Paik Soo-hyeon, an official at the Welfare Ministry, says the government is trying to provide incentives for people to raise those children that unwed mothers cannot support. Korea has one of the world's lowest birthrates, and domestic adoption has long been shunned here due to a strong emphasis on bloodlines and stigmas surrounding infertility.
South Korea has sent more than 162,000 children overseas since 1953, when the Korean War ended. Even after 1991, when it was clearly a developed democracy, the number of kids adopted domestically did not surpass those put up for international adoption until 2007 – 1,388 and 1,264 children, respectively.
Social pressures on mothers
Unwed-mothers advocacy groups allege that adoption agencies sometimes pressure women into giving up their children by citing social stigma, and perpetuate it in the process.
Jane Jeong Trenka, a Korean-American adoptee who has pushed for a clear record of Korea's adoption history, says women are often coerced in counseling offered by adoption agencies. Kim, the mother, says she experienced such pressure.
Adoption agencies and advocates vehemently deny such accusations.
Susan Soon-keum Cox, spokeswoman for Holt, the world's largest international adoption agency, says it's key that birth mothers understand "that they have options."
Mr. Morrison says he has "never heard of a case" of coercion.
Mr. Paik, the Welfare Ministry official, stresses that social change cannot be made through policy alone: "Asking which direction change should come from is like debating the question of the chicken or the egg. Both society and the government need to move together."
Han Sang-soo, head of the Aeranwon unwed mothers shelter, says that attitudes will only really begin to shift when people see unwed mothers can be successful.
Kim is working toward her high school diploma equivalent and hopes to become a nurse. "They don't need to worry. I have a good life," she says.