SEOUL, South Korea — Four years ago, when she found that she was pregnant by her former boyfriend, Choi Hyong-sook considered abortion. But after she saw the little blip of her baby’s heartbeat on ultrasound images, she could not go through with it.
As her pregnancy advanced, she confided in her elder brother. His reaction would sound familiar to unwed mothers in South Korea. She said he tried to drag her to an abortion clinic. Later, she said, he pressed her to give the child up for adoption.
“My brother said: ‘How can you be so selfish? You can’t do this to our parents,’ ” said Ms. Choi, 37, a hairdresser in Seoul. “But when the adoption agency took my baby away, I felt as if I had thrown him into the trash. It felt as if the earth had stopped turning. I persuaded them to let me reclaim my baby after five days.”
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.
Nearly 90 percent of the 1,250 South Korean children adopted abroad last year, most of them by American couples, were born to unmarried women, according to the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs.
In their campaign, Ms. Choi and the other women have attracted unusual allies. Korean-born adoptees and their foreign families have been returning here in recent years to speak out for the women, who face the same difficulties in today’s South Korea as the adoptees’ birth mothers did decades ago.
One such supporter, Richard Boas [recipient of the Family Preservation Hero of the Year Award, 2007] 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 lobbies for better welfare services from the state.
“What we see in South Korea today is discrimination against natural mothers and favoring of adoption at the government level,” said Jane Jeong Trenka, 37, a Korean-born adoptee who grew up in Minnesota and now leads Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea, one of two groups organized by Korean adoptees who have returned to their homeland to advocate for the rights of adoptees and unwed mothers. “Culture is not an excuse to abuse human rights.”
In 2007, 7,774 babies were born out of wedlock in South Korea, 1.6 percent of all births. (In the United States, nearly 40 percent of babies born in 2007 had unmarried mothers, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.) Nearly 96 percent of unwed pregnant women in South Korea choose abortion, according to the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs.
Of unmarried women who give birth, about 70 percent are believed to give up their babies for adoption, according to a government-financed survey. In the United States, the figure is 1 percent, the Health and Human Services Department reports.
For years, the South Korean government has worked to reduce overseas adoptions, which peaked at 8,837 in 1985. To increase adoptions at home, it provides subsidies and extra health care benefits for families that adopt, and it designated May 11 as Adoption Day.
It also spends billions of dollars a year to try to reverse the declining birthrate, subsidizing fertility treatments for married couples, for example.
“But we don’t see a campaign for unmarried mothers to raise our own children,” said Lee Mee-kyong, a 33-year-old unwed mother. “Once you become an unwed mom, you’re branded as immoral and a failure. People treat you as if you had committed a crime. You fall to the bottom rung of society.”
The government pays a monthly allowance of $85 per child to those who adopt children. It offers half that for single mothers of dependent children.
The government is trying to increase payments to help unwed mothers and to add more facilities to provide care for unmarried pregnant women, said Baek Su-hyun, an official at the Health Ministry. But the social stigma discourages women from coming forward.
Chang Ji-young, 27, who gave birth to a boy last month, said: “My former boyfriend’s sister screamed at me over the phone demanding that I get an abortion. His mother and sister said it was up to them to decide what to do with my baby because it was their family’s seed.”
Families whose unmarried daughters become pregnant sometimes move to conceal the pregnancy. Unwed mothers often lie about their marital status for fear they will be evicted by landlords and their children ostracized at school. Only about a quarter of South Koreans are willing to have a close relationship with an unwed mother as a coworker or neighbor, according to a recent survey by the government-financed Korean Women’s Development Institute.
“I was turned down eight times in job applications,” Ms. Lee said. “Each time a company learned that I was an unwed mom, it accused me of dishonesty.”
Ms. Choi, the hairdresser, said her family changed its phone number to avoid contact with her. When her father was hospitalized and she went to see him with her baby, she said, her sister blocked them from entering his room. When she wrote to him, she said, her father burned the letters. Last year, about three years after the birth, he finally accepted Ms. Choi back into his home.
“That day, I saw him in the bathroom, crying over one of my letters,” she said. “I realized how hard it must have been for him as well.”