Unintended Consequences: More Babies Abandoned in South Korea

Dawn Davenport


South Korea Adoptions

An update on the adoption laws in South Korea. Have they created unintended consequences?

One of the things that strikes me over and over in the areas of adoption and infertility is the vast expanse of gray. I’m a person who by nature sees life in varying shades of gray, so I suppose on one level my aversion to the blacks and whites of life makes me well suited to think and write about both adoption and infertility. On the other hand, I sometimes am left with the feeling of being stuck without a lot of forward movement.

As some of you may recall, a year ago I wrote an extensive post (tome?)  about the history of adoptions in South Korea and the new Korean adoption law. In some ways Korea has been seen as leading the way in international adoptions, so I thought it helpful for everyone to consider what is happening in Korean adoptions regardless what country they are adopting from. A year has passed, and I wondered what has happened under the new law.

Increased Waits, Older Kids in Korean Adoption

I hasten to add that it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions. The new adoption law passed the Korean National Assembly on June 29, 2011 did not take full effect until August 2012. The trend with adoptions from Korea is longer wait, older kids, and fewer “healthy” children referred. This was the trend, however, before the new adoption law took effect. Although it varies by agency, the following generally applies:

  • Average timeframe from home study approval to travel is approximately 14-18 months.
  • Majority of children are now18-24 months when they arrive home.
  • Majority have some health issues or special needs, although these are often minor and may have been treated in Korea before the child arrives home.

More Babies Being Abandoned in Korea

While it is too early to tell whether the new adoption law will increase the wait for children before they are placed in a permanent home, there is some evidence that the new law has had one unintended consequence. The new adoption law requires that expectant women wanting to relinquish their babies for adoption must first legally register the newborns under their Family Register. The intent is to make it easier for adopted persons to find their birth family if they choose to search later in life. This makes sense because the address on the Register is considered that person’s permanent address, even when he moves during adulthood. Many Koreans have both a permanent address and a present address; the permanent one where his birth records were established and the present one where he currently lives.

At the risk of understatement, the Family Register is a big darn deal in Korean society. In Confucian tradition, the family is the most important part of Korean life, and the Family Register is the historical record of the family. In many cases the Register can trace a family’s history for over 500 years. Family welfare is viewed as much more important than the needs of the individual, and members of the family are tied to each other because the actions of one family member reflect on the rest of the family. Listing a child born out of wedlock on the mother’s family registry is like a permanent scarlet letter “A” that will follow the woman, the child, and her family throughout life and beyond.

For some women, this may not matter much. Attitudes may be changing, and there are groups actively working to improve acceptance of single motherhood and reduce the shame attached. But for other women, the shame is too great. The unintended consequence of this requirement in a society where shame still reigns supreme for out of wedlock births may well be abandonment. And abandoned infants in South Korea are not eligible for domestic or international adoption, thus will be raised until age 18 in an orphanage.

Three years ago, Pastor Lee Jong-rak set up a “baby box” built into the wall of his church in Nangok, a tough working-class neighborhood in Seoul. The baby box was created to offer a safe place for a mother to abandon her infant. (Although creating a baby box might in itself encourage abandonment rather than legal relinquishment, that is a topic for another blog.) Until the new adoption law took effect in August, he averaged five infants a month. In August of this year he received 10 babies, and in September he received 14.

The evidence is not strong yet, and perhaps will not hold water in the long run, but it may point to a disturbing trend. Steve Morrison, over at Mission to Promote Adoptions in Korea (MPAK), will be in Korea this month and will try to get more updated numbers on abandonment. (I’ll share those with you, so sign up for our weekly e-newsletter at the top left of this page. ) I challenge you to watch this video of Pastor Lee’s ministry without uttering a sad sigh.

I stand by my conclusion in my blog last year on the status of Korean adoptions.

The question of what to do from here is not ours to make.  I do not envy South Korea this decision.  No country wants the label of baby exporter; every country wants to take care of their own.  (Americans should keep in mind that we have 115,000 children in our foster care system in need of adoptive families.)  Korea faces an entrenched cultural prejudice against adoption and single motherhood along with many babies and young children in need of homes.

International treaties, national laws, and common decency dictate that adults and governments make decisions for children based on what is in their best interest–not what is good for us or less embarrassing for us, but what is best for the kids that have been entrusted to our care.  I suspect that domestic adoptions will slowly increase in part through governmental efforts, but also because of increasing infertility as the Koreans follow the pattern of postponing child bearing until careers are well established common in developed countries.  Acceptance and support of single motherhood will also likely increase as the country develops and women are able to support themselves and their children.  Artificially limiting international adoptions before domestic adoptions and acceptance of single motherhood has caught up with the demand is not in the best interest of children.

I appreciate that it is a balancing act—if international adoptions are too readily available to handle the demand there is little need for Koreans to overcome their distrust of adoption.  On the other hand, their current system results in the majority of children without parents growing up in orphanage, and those that are “lucky” enough to be relinquished to an agency with an international adoption program must wait in foster homes for the next years quota to roll around.  This system is not good for children.


Image credit: Ivodman

06/11/2012 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 17 Comments

17 Responses to Unintended Consequences: More Babies Abandoned in South Korea

  1. Terri Cb Terri Cb says:

    The whole thing is sad. There have been other cases………..one in China I can think of where dad was taking ds on the bus and dad stepped off for a minute and the bus left without him…… after MANY years they were reunited — not sure how they could find each other besides ads in the papers………but since it’s illegal to abandon a child, who knows. I’m sure it happens in the US too……….hopefully one day there will be a better way.

  2. Melanie Kristine Joy Seier Melanie Kristine Joy Seier says:

    Wow…that is heartbreaking…I wish there was a perfect system. It is that way so often…the laws set up to protect us actually hurt us in the end. 🙁 Praying for all these children!

  3. Melanie Kristine Joy Seier Melanie Kristine Joy Seier says:

    Yes, why?

  4. Avatar Chick says:

    My husband and I just received our referral for a healthy baby boy who is less than a year old. There are still healthy children being referred. There is just an increasing time to wait from those we have talked to at our agency.

  5. Avatar Tomo says:

    This is very sad for the children. I do not envy policy makers that have to make these decisions. It just seems that abandoned children are the ones that lose out. Changing social norm takes time. It is such a shame that some children need to grow up in an environment where they are stigmatized. My close Korean friend has said that she feels ashamed of international adoption (and she is quite progressive) so I think this sentiment is very rooted in the culture.
    I am Japanese, and I read that a “baby post” was established in Japan and it was very controversial. I read a lot of mothers come back for their babies within 48 hours. But I don’t think single motherhood is as stigmatized in Japan as it is in Korea. The issue of not being in a family registry is also a big deal in Japan. If you don’t have a family register, it basically means you do not exist.

  6. Avatar A's mom says:

    i believe with one of the new laws this summer that was enacted in Korea, that after a child has been “abandoned” for 3 years and not claimed by their birth parents or relatives, that they are then eligible for adoption.I have a friend in Korea who recently adopted an older child in Korea that was until recently not legally adoptible but with the new law in place, it freed her up legally to be adopted since she had been legally abandoned for 3 + years. So, in theory these undocumented abandoned babies will be eligible for adoption in three years.

  7. Avatar Carolyn says:

    In 1971, my Korean mother in law had a premature daughter who died shortly after birth. She tried to persuade my father in law to adopt a baby girl. He would not agree, largely due to Confucian values. It is interesting that she has an 8th grade education and is from a rural area, whereas he is a college educated city boy from Seoul. She is more forward thinking and wants us to adopt a baby of any race!

  8. Avatar Elizabeth says:

    Why would abandoned children NOT be eligible for adoption!? That seems crazy to me! Can you address this issue for us? If a child is abandoned, why must an orphanage care for those children until adulthood? That seems confusing to me.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Elizabeth, it is my understanding that this rule was instituted many years ago to prevent children who were lost or accidentally separated from their parents from being placed for adoption. Apparently, there were a few tragic cases of this happening. This is another example of an unintended consequence from a well intended adoption law.

  9. Avatar Rosie says:

    Another thoughtful and well-written post. Thank you so much, Dawn!

  10. Avatar Jessica says:

    Dawn, as always, I appreciate your balanced, rational (and informative) view of complex situations. Thank you.

  11. Avatar Elizabeth says:

    Thanks Dawn for explaining! You’re right. That’s the perfect example of a well intentioned law going wrong. 🙁

  12. Avatar Carrie Franz says:

    So sad. Hoping that Korea can find a way to change culture and place all babies currently waiting for families in loving families.

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