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‘Ghost babies’ expose Korea’s lack of maternal support, social taboos

Proper sex education, change in perceptions of single motherhood needed, experts say

July 9, 2023 - 15:33 By Park Jun-hee

A series of alleged infanticide cases that have emerged in an ongoing nationwide investigation into “ghost children” has laid bare the dark stories of South Korea’s mothers of unwanted pregnancies and how the country lacks protective measures and adequate sex education, according to observers here.

Mothers not wanting to confess their pregnancies to their parents or endure economic hardships, in particular, have contributed to the infanticides, according to a study published by professor Kim Youn-shin at Chosun University’s medical school. The study, which analyzed recent court rulings on infanticide cases, showed that many women -- mostly single mothers -- hid the pregnancy from family as they feared becoming a single mom. The stigma of being an unwed mother has persisted in Korean society and, in most cases, leaves an indelible mark on the mothers’ lives, according to the study. Many women also resort to foul play as they are not equipped with economic resources, it added.

In light of increasing infant homicide cases, the research team stressed the need for comprehensive sex education programs that offer age-appropriate information about sexual health, such as birth control and safe sexual intercourse, which could prevent unwanted pregnancies. The research team suggested that conventional measures that reflect women’s rights should be introduced.

Sex education in Korean schools mostly consists of a single-session lecture with an hourlong video covering broad concepts of sex, lacking specific information about sexual intercourse, puberty, reproduction, clinical services, abortion and contraceptive use for safe sex in the real world -- all of which could help prevent unwanted pregnancies.

As unwed single mothers were linked to most infanticide cases, Park Myung-sook, a professor at Sangji University, said a campaign to embrace unmarried mothers as part of the community is needed.

A June report released by the Board of Audit and Inspection found that at least 2,236 babies born in medical institutions remained unregistered between 2015 and 2022. Local authorities have faced difficulties tracking those born before 2014 due to poor data management.

Currently, only the parents are obliged to register their child’s birth with the government within one month.

In an effort to protect children who could go unregistered, the National Assembly passed a revision to the Act on Registration of Family Relations last month requiring workers at medical institutions to report newborns to the local administration within 14 days of birth. The revision is to take effect one year after promulgation.

The scheme, however, has drawn backlash from several critics that it could pose obstacles to single mothers and unwed women as they fear that the record of their giving birth in the state system could negatively affect them when trying to land a job.

Instead, experts have called for a set of measures to deal with unwanted pregnancies, including beefing up support for single parents and alternative approaches to abortion.

Access to abortion, however, has been in limbo. The Constitutional Court ruled abortion as a criminal offense unconstitutional in April 2019, while allowing for punishment depending on specific circumstances. The government’s follow-up 2020 proposal that would permit abortion up to 14 weeks into pregnancy has been pending at the National Assembly.

Critics claim the pending bill has led to a rise in abortion pills and surgical operations acquired or performed through unsupervised and illegal routes.