Religion ghost in the maternity ward

BabyFair2005 Attempts To Tackle Low Korean Birth-rate

The New York Times published a fascinating and deeply troubling story about the plight of Korean women who become pregnant. It begins with the story of Choi Hyong-sook. When she found out she was pregnant by her former boyfriend four years ago, she considered abortion. But when she saw her child’s heartbeat, she couldn’t do it. She put her baby up for adoption but felt so bad about it that she persuaded the adoption agency to let her reclaim the baby five days later:

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.

Shame, of course, is a huge motivational force in Korean culture and it’s a big part of this story, too. But the reporter doesn’t unpack the eclectic religious environment of Korea, much less the tremendous influence of Confucianism on Korean culture. Confucianism has moral, social, political, philosophical, and quasi-religious aspects and one of its most important concepts is shame — as it relates to the individual and family.

But we don’t learn about any of that. It would help in a story where we’re told that the conservative social elements advocate abortion of children conceived out of wedlock. Of course, we don’t learn anything about the religious role that may or may not be played in the efforts to help unmarried women:

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.

Now, I don’t know anything about Boas’ religious beliefs or whether they played a role in his philanthropic efforts. But there’s this story from July in the Addison, Vt., Independent. It’s about how the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network organized a delegation from Korea to visit effective programs being run in Vermont. And that story includes religion angles. While the New York Times story emphasizes the role of the government, this Independent story emphasizes religious efforts.

We learn about AeRanWan, a residential support program for pregnant and unwed mothers directed by Han Man Soon. While the group started out in the 1960s as a way to help prostitutes, it now provides pre- and post-natal care, counseling for education, training for employment, support for women who give their children up for adoption, housing for single mothers and crisis intervention. One of the first directors, Sue Rice, and her husband the Rev. Randy Rice were missionaries in Korea:

AeRanWan has been able to help unwed women dramatically buck the trend of abortions in Korea. More than 80 percent of the women who enroll in the program elect to raise their children, according to Boas. . . .

Han is often referred to in Korea as “the mother of unwed mothers.” She takes her job very seriously, inspired by her own experiences with motherhood (she has three children) and her Christian faith.

“It is one of my missions from God,” she said of her work at AeRanWan, which she has been pursuing for almost 20 years.

There are many religions in Korea. And while Korea is more Christian than any other country in East Asia or Southeast Asia (with the exception of the Philippines), it is still a minority religion. Most Koreans claim no religious affiliation, with the rest adhering to Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, Confucianism and other religions. This complex religious brew — along with the philosophical and moral traditions of Confucianism — are so important for understanding various parts of this story.

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  • Dave

    It’s really negligent for the NYT to omit the religious backdrop of this story. It can be understood, sort of, why they would omit it from a domestic story on the assumption that their readers already know that. But from half-way around the world it’s a glaring omission.

  • Jerry

    social pressure drives thousands of unmarried women to choose between abortion, which is illegal but rampant

    The story also had an interesting thread on abortion with obvious implications for the abortion wars in the US. There are two clear elements that stand out from the story. One is that Ms. Choi had to resist repeated attempts to force her to have an abortion. The second point is that social pressure is clearly much more important than the legality of abortion.

    The Times story did not mention the lack of a penalty which is, according to Wikipedia, non-existent for women who have on-demand abortions: I found a story with more details that indicates that a doctor performing abortions is subject to 2 years of prison but the law is not enforced:

  • Jeff

    This analysis is a perfect summary of the core function . . . and necessity! . . . of a website like “GetReligion.” You don’t get the religion, you get the story wrong, or at least all muddled.

    And my youthful editors were pretty unanimous that getting the story muddled and unclear was the same as getting it wrong.

  • Jin

    I think this NY times article was on a word limit, as there seemed to be a lot of aspects of this complex story that the writer could not address.

    Although some of these help organizations are clearly driven by deep religious conviction, the Christian “world” is also a major factor in dissuading mothers to keep their babies out of wedlock. Whether it’s forcing marriage between two unwilling partners (as was my cousin’s case) that ends up in divorce, adopting off the baby, or outright aborting it, it’s a lot easier to hide a baby out of wedlock by not becoming a single mom. Christianity is nearly 50% in Korea and the numbers clearly show that Christians are likely adopting out or aborting their babies as well. A former pastor of mine had a “honeymoon” baby, and some in the church felt it was too soon and embarrassing and even suggested to his wife to get an abortion. I think the full story about religion would include pressures from inside the church to hide such egregious “sin” rather than embrace what God has bestowed on those moms.