As children, adults would often ask about your future dreams as if anyone your age had a clue. Most would say something along the lines of “I want to go to the moon,” or “I want to be a singer when I grow up.” But me? When it was my turn to be asked this timeless question, I’d responded with, “I want to be a jockey. And I’d like to adopt a kid.” While I may have grown out of my horse-racing dreams, to this day I’ve held strong feelings regarding the adoption industry. Adoption has long been considered a messy business that juggles both ethics and politics. Personally, I think it’s a wonderful thing to give a child another chance at life no matter how difficult the adoption. Of course, this process doesn’t come without its consequences.
This summer, I learned that one of my aunts and her husband are getting involved with a life-saving project in Seoul, South Korea that came to the public’s eye through Brian Ivie’s documentary, “The Drop Box.” In a similar vein, I’d like to spread awareness about the project as well as its collaboration with Kindred Image’s “Family’s Wait No More” adoption program.
In 2009, Pastor Lee Jong-Rak began an initiative that would change the lives of hundreds. Disheartened by the country’s increase in infant abandonment, Pastor Lee added a “Baby Box” to the side of Jusarang Community Church that would act as a safe drop-off for unwanted children. Prior to doing so, he and his staff had occasionally been left with infants on their doorsteps – many on the brink of death. In contrast, the “Baby Box” is blanketed, heated, and lit so as to keep potential deliveries warm and comfortable. An alarm then rings to alert the Pastor and his staff that a child has been dropped off; one of them claims the child and sees to his or her immediate needs. This system looks to improve with the help of donations and profit made from the documentary’s showings. In addition to supporting the “Family’s Wait No More” program – a new agency looking to handle and encourage more local adoptions – half of the proceeds are going into the construction of an orphanage and mothers’ program to further promote Pastor Lee’s mission. While these efforts have been hindered by critics and foreign policy, the project has received a mostly positive reception.
Through his courageous efforts, Pastor Lee has saved over six-hundred infants in the past five years; he reported that approximately nineteen infants are dropped off per month since the installation of the “Baby Box.” Most of these children are victims of stigma surrounding illegitimate birth, mental illnesses, and physical disabilities. On a global scale, the latter is one of the most vulnerable members of society. Unfortunately, these are opinions that continue to dictate South Korean society, but in my opinion, the “Baby Box” is a step towards progress. Since the documentary was broadcasted in 2014, another church has since adopted Pastor Lee’s ideals and implemented a “Baby Box.” The counseling and support provided by the new mothers’ program has even led to about one-hundred and forty babies being reclaimed by families through an extensive matching process. Fearing rejection by family and in-laws, women will often abandon their child or turn to suicide after giving birth. While it separates families for the time being, this special program gives mothers health counseling and an opportunity to preserve the precious life they’ve fostered.
From a historical standpoint, adoption has been a hot topic since the Korean War. After the country was left in political turmoil, thousands of children were sent abroad in the hopes of securing better futures. However, 2012 experienced a drastic decrease in overseas adoption. A year later, the government amended its adoption law so as to reduce unregistered adoptions of children in other countries. In regulation with the Special Adoption Law, new mothers are also required to remain with their children for a week until all necessary paperwork has been completed. However, this law garnered the opposite effect. More children were abandoned, mostly due to taboos surrounding children being born and raised out of wedlock. In addition, the practice of adoption is still uncommon within Korean culture.
As of now, the biggest debate surrounding Pastor Lee’s project is whether or not the “Baby Box” is truly a safehaven for unwanted children, or an instigator of more ethical issues. Naturally, most of the women leaving their babies wish to remain anonymous. This brings up a harrowing predicament concerning birth registration – without proper documentation, the “Baby Box” infants cannot be adopted internationally. Furthermore, their options are limited to that of the domestic variety. Some critics even believe that the existence of the box has fostered an increase in infant abandonment. In addition, the rate of infanticide hasn’t changed since 2009, leading several specialists to believe that there lies a stronger correlation to the poor mental health of mothers due to stigma rather than social standards. The wellbeing of mothers and their children – both mental and emotional – is just as important as doing what’s “best” for the family as a whole. South Korea is a collectivistic culture that often prioritizes the needs of the group over the individual. However, if the abandonment issue is to improve, society as a whole must take the appropriate measures to support its citizens. The emotional and mental wellbeing of a family unit is integral to fostering healthy relationships among its members. In the end, the reinforcement of stigma by those who are supposed to support you is what drives mothers to such desperate measures in the first place.
Keeping both ethical and political factors in mind, I still believe that Pastor Lee’s decision to create the “Baby Box” is an incredibly brave course of action. It’ll take some time before South Korea overcomes the taboos surrounding illegitimate birth as well as mental and physical health. So until then, individuals such as Pastor Lee have to make strides themselves to protect those without voice in our society.
If someone were to ask me about my future dreams now, I’d be inclined to share this incredible story with them. No matter what we choose to do in life, I think we should tackle it with compassion and an equally open mind.
After all, everything starts with baby steps.
-By Hope Kim ’18
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