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Pregnant woman in Seoul, South Korea.  © RUNSTUDIO/Getty Images

(Seoul) – The South Korean government should reconsider the new Protected Birth Bill, which promotes anonymous births and adoption or orphanage care as solutions to unregistered births and unwanted pregnancies, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to South Korean National Assembly members. The bill, set for a National Assembly vote on October 25, 2023, fails to address the underlying reasons for unregistered births, including lack of access to safe abortions and sexuality education, inadequate support services for pregnant women and girls, and societal stigma associated with single motherhood.

South Korean women rights groups are concerned that the bill if enacted would privilege giving up a child over other forms of support that might prevent unwanted pregnancies or allow women and girls who wish to keep the child to do so. The bill also fails to include registration of children born to non-citizen parents.

“The Protected Birth Bill could increase stigma around single motherhood and economic hardship, rather than addressing the real needs of single mothers and their children,” said Susanne Seong-Eun Bergsten, senior women’s rights coordinator at Human Rights Watch. “Lawmakers shouldn’t rush to pass the bill, but act to ensure access to contraception and safe abortions, comprehensive sexuality education, and support for pregnant women and girls and new parents.”

In June, a Ministry of Health and Welfare investigation reported that 2,123 children born to South Korean women and girls, and 4,000 born to non-citizens between 2015 and 2022 had not been registered with the government. The investigation found that of the children born to South Koreans, 249 infants died while 601 were abandoned in illegal “baby boxes,” run by religious organizations without government oversight.

The National Assembly responded to the investigation by introducing two bills. The Birth Notification System, passed in July and effective from July 2024, would require medical facilities to register all children born to South Korean parents. The Protected Birth Bill, introduced in August, would allow South Korean women to give birth anonymously at designated medical facilities without requiring the child to be registered under the family registration system and with the intention of giving the child up.   

The bill aims to establish a public protection system for “crisis pregnancies” that provides counseling and medical, livelihood, and educational support related to pregnancy, childbirth, and child care. South Korean women’s rights organizations said this was not sufficient to address the primary reasons for “unregistered births” in South Korea: deep-rooted discrimination against unmarried mothers and their children, and against women and girls with unwanted pregnancies.

A coalition of groups said that, “Everyone should be able to access the information and support system they need at the point of pregnancy, not just in situations of ‘crisis pregnancy’ or ‘pregnancy conflict,’ and no matter what decision is made when considering whether to continue or terminate the pregnancy, support must be guaranteed.” Some groups recommended that legislators introduce a comprehensive and holistic framework that guarantees reproductive autonomy for women and girls, and ensures that all children are protected.

The National Assembly should also act to ensure that safe abortions and medical abortion pills are accessible and affordable to all women, guarantee that abortions are a medical treatment covered by the national insurance plan, and provide for adequate sexuality education. All women, including immigrant women, should be able to register their child’s birth, have access to pre- and postnatal care, and financial support and services, including for children with disabilities.

The bill does not include registration for non-citizen parents, leaving many unable to access basic services for their children. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2019 recommended that the South Korean government “ensure that birth registration, including online, is universal and available to all children regardless of their parents’ legal status or origins,” and that all children within its territory are equally able to access “childcare facilities, education, health care, welfare, leisure and State support.”

South Korean activists say the bill places the burden of responsibility wholly on the individual by suggesting that women and girls can choose to give birth confidentially and give away the child, if struggling with an unwanted pregnancy, disability, or economic constraints. As a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, South Korea has an obligation to protect women’s autonomy, including decisions about pregnancy, terminating a pregnancy, having children, or giving consent for adoption, and to ensure that no one is forced to give up custody of their children because they are financially unable to care for them.

“If South Korea really means to protect women and children, the government should address the structural issues leading to ‘unregistered births’ and women having ‘crisis pregnancies,’” Bergsten said. “For women choosing to have a child, the government should take measurable and time-bound steps to combat the social stigma that single mothers and their children face.”

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