S. Korea babies abandoned in wake of child law
SEOUL — The young woman labored up the steps, past brightly decorated walls akin to a child’s nursery, her daughter in her arms. Opening a hatch in the wall, she put her inside, turned around and walked away.
She ran her hands over her head but did not look back, surveillance camera footage showed. She may never see the girl again.
South Korea has risen from the ruins of war to become Asia’s fourth-largest economy and a member of the OECD club of developed countries.
It was for a time one of the world’s biggest sources of unwanted children, driven by poverty, a light regulatory touch, and a culture of racial purity, family bloodlines and shame.
Around 110,000 South Koreans have been adopted to the United States alone since the 1950s but numbers have fallen in recent years.
Birthrates have plummeted to the world’s lowest with factors such as high child-rearing costs and a workaholic culture affecting the situation.
But the number of abandoned babies has jumped in recent years in the wake of a law intended to protect children.
Now more changes are mooted, for similarly well-intended reasons, that campaigners say could make the situation even worse.
The woman in the video footage was among the latest of more than 1,000 to have made their way to a house in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Seoul.
Converted into a shelter by a church, a temperaturecontrolled chamber built into the wall functions as a baby box, enabling unwanted newborns to be taken in without parents having to identify themselves.
New arrivals — almost 200 last year, an average of nearly four a week — are deposited covered in blood, wrapped in material, sometimes with the umbilical cord still attached.
Pastor Lee Jong-rak of the Jusarang Community Church set up the facility after hearing reports of babies being abandoned in the open air or in public restrooms, where they risked dying of hypothermia.
In 2010, its first year of operations, just four babies were placed in the box.
At the time, South Korean women who wanted to give up unwanted babies were obliged to give adoption agencies their written consent, but often gave false details or no records, and operators looked the other way.
It’s very hard to strike a balance between reality and international adoption norms.” Cho Tae-seung, pastor with the Jusarang Community Church
But two years later the country adopted a law banning adoption agencies accepting undocumented babies, in line with the Hague Convention, which aims to give adoptive children the right to trace their birthparents. It also required all adoptions to be court-approved.
Pastor Lee’s colleague Cho Tae-seung is concerned that the regulations resulting from the convention could backfire by driving women to abandon unwanted babies illicitly and dangerously.
“It’s very hard to strike a balance between reality and international adoption norms,” he said.
Instead the group wants mothers to be legally allowed to give birth and give up their children anonymously.
Next to the hatch in the wall, a form enables parents to state a child’s name, date of birth, and vaccinations.
The mother in the video left it blank.