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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