By Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Jane Jeong Trenka and Tobias Hubinette
While international adoptions to the U.S. hit a 13-year low in 2009, South Korea stands out as the only country ― besides Ethiopia ― that increased international adoptions to the U.S. over this past year.
With the international trend clearly turning toward domestic solutions and family preservation, we may wonder why over 1,080 babies went to the U.S. from South Korea this year for adoption.
The answer lies in Korea's adoption laws, which have been in the process of being revised by the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family for the past year. On Dec. 29, the ministry held its final public hearing on its draft bill to revise the Special Adoption Law that governs international adoptions.
These laws have enabled the world's oldest and longest continuously running overseas adoption program in the world to send up to 200,000 children overseas.
The fact that 89 percent of children adopted overseas were born to unwed mothers in 2008 is an indication that the adoption agencies' system, which the law oversees, targets a certain population to meet the demand for adoption.
One major point that both the government and activists agree upon is the need to lengthen the deliberation period during which it is illegal for a mother to relinquish her child for adoption ― currently, mothers may relinquish a child while still in the womb.
However, the opinions of activists and the ministry differ greatly on the amount of time that mothers are required to deliberate before making a life-altering decision for herself, her baby and future generations.
While the bill drafted by adoptees and unwed mothers demands 30 days after birth for deliberation, the ministry proposes 72 hours after birth for domestic adoption, followed by a court procedure. For international adoption, no court procedure is necessary.
Activists disagree with the ministry, for two reasons: First, 72 hours would continue to give the legal base for preferring domestic adoption over family preservation. Second, there is nothing in the bill that changes the way overseas adoptions are conducted.
This means that overseas adoptions are again being preferred over domestic adoption, which is itself being preferred over family preservation.
This hierarchy is exactly the opposite of recommendations by international laws on child welfare, which state that family preservation must come first, followed by domestic adoption, and finally international adoption as a last resort.
While the ministry is basing its ideas on the American model, even better models for a small country like Korea are Germany, which allows mothers a minimum of eight weeks for a single child or 12 weeks for twins to consent, or Sweden, where mothers may take six weeks to decide.
In Germany and Sweden, as well as many other developed European countries and Australia, relinquishing children for domestic adoption is rare because there are adequate legal and economic protections for single-parent families.
In the past, the ministry has argued that child should be able to be relinquished immediately after birth, arguing that the child's safety may be in jeopardy.
But mothers who care enough about their babies to have stayed in an unwed mothers' home say that if a medical emergency occurred, they would do the same thing as any other mother ― call for help.
The children who are being sent for adoption are almost all coming from unwed mothers' homes, and of these mothers, 766 out of 1,114 mothers in 2008 were at least 20 years old. We can reasonably assume that mothers who went to shelters or who are over the age of 20 are capable of making an emergency phone call.
The matter of relinquishing a child for adoption is a grave and life-altering matter. Mothers must have adequate counseling and time to deliberate before their legal relationship to their child is severed. Even 72 hours is not enough.
At a different public hearing on the Special Adoption Law held Nov. 10 at the National Assembly and sponsored by Rep. Choi Young-hee of the main opposition Democratic Party (DP), Kwon Hee-jung of the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network said one mother who came to her group wanted to get her child back after she quickly consented to adoption.
While she did finally get her baby back, the adoption agency forced her to pay a large sum of money before giving back the child. The sum was so large that she didn't have enough money. She asked to pay by credit card, but the agency demanded cash. A collection was taken up among friends, and finally the baby could go home.
Unfortunately, stories such as these are all too common in the adoption community. As long as mothers are not given enough time to deliberate, or are pressured or coerced by adoption agencies and their vast networks of hospitals and unwed mothers' homes, it is impossible for mothers to make fully informed decisions for herself and her baby.
Parental rights should not be severed from a hospital bed, a privatized adoption agency, or an unwed mothers' home that serves as a supply source for international adoption agencies.
Korea should write its adoption laws to meet the highest standards, and it should take as its model not the U.S. ― where the poverty rate is higher than Korea's according to the latest OECD statistics, and where one in five children suffer from hunger, according to the most recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Instead, Korea should benchmark smaller European countries that truly practice just social welfare policy. But as it stands right now, babies sent for international adoption will not have even the most basic safeguard of the court. Is it any wonder that Korea has sent so many children abroad when adoptions can be expedited so easily?
Korea must create just laws domestically if it is ever to raise itself up to international standards and ethics for adoption and erase its ``stigma'' as an ``orphan-exporting country.''
Korea must finally move beyond its shame and guilt about the international adoption program and proactively formulate laws that preserve families and stop targeting unwed mothers when they are at their most vulnerable.
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Ph.D., is assistant professor of English at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. She can be reached at www.jkwondobbs.com. Jane Jeong Trenka is president of the Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK, www.adoptionjustice.com). Tobias Hubinette, Ph.D., is a researcher at the Multicultural Centre, Sweden.