Alice Hyoeun Lee*, Elizabeth Jin**, and Hajin Julia Kim***
A safe location for mothers to surrender a newborn allows for the child’s survival and placement into proper care. Safe Haven laws in the U.S. removed legal repercussions for mothers and allowed hospitals, fire stations, and other designated locations to accept abandoned babies. As a result, infant death due to unsafe abandonment has been nearly eliminated. Despite these results, policymakers in countries like South Korea are resistant to passing similar laws. The cultural, systemic, and political factors are considered in their rejection of such policies, but regardless of those factors, Safe-Haven-type policies might be successful across different countries and cultures.
Many of our most beloved stories feature a common archetype: an innocent infant abandoned on a doorstep. There is something intriguing yet dreadful, in a story-telling sense, about a baby left behind to fend for themselves. And while this may seem like a mere tragic fantasy, infant abandonment is a very real problem.
A study published in 2001 determined that nearly 17,400 infants were abandoned in a given year, and there were an estimated 13,400 boarder babies - “infants younger than 12 months who remain in the hospital beyond medical discharge because no parent claims custody of them” (Changes in Boarder Baby Population, 2004). Many solutions were considered on the federal level when this growing dilemma was first brought to national attention in the 1990s (Melillo, 1992). Considering budget and public approval, most states began implementing Safe Haven laws. Enacted in 2001, California’s Safe Surrender Baby (SSB) Program states that an infant can be given up within 72 hours of birth “legally, confidently, and safely” in hospitals and firehouses that are a safe surrender site (California’s Safe Surrender Baby Law, 2001).
Overall, Safe Surrender Baby laws in California have led to a dramatic decrease in child abandonment. In 2001, when these laws were enacted, 20 total infants were abandoned, resulting in 13 deceased infants. However, in 2018, 0 infants were abandoned, while 79 were safely surrendered. An 80% decrease in child abandonment at safe havens statewide in the past sixteen years suggests that SSB laws are substantially effective (SSB Data, 2018). The Safely Surrender programs provide surrendering parties with an outlet to safely and legally surrender their infants. The SSB laws successfully achieved their goal in decreasing deceased infants due to child abandonment.
Although the Safely Surrender programs have proved effective in protecting both mother and child, some countries, such as South Korea, are still reluctant to enact similar policies. Women in desperate situations, such as women who have children born out of wedlock, young mothers, and single mothers, sometimes resort to abandoning their newborns to hide the fact that they had a child (Choi, 2019). Under the South Korean construct of Confucian culture and hierarchical society, bloodlines dominate in defining community. Family relatives also tend to ostracize unwed single mothers because it reminds them of a black sheep in the family. It is a real stigma to the family and a sign that they did not raise the woman well. For ostracized single mothers, to be without family ties is to be a social outcast. The fault is entirely blamed on the mothers, while fathers deny the baby, pressuring mothers to hold them accountable for the pregnancy. Widespread cultural bias makes it difficult for unmarried mothers to maintain family relationships, find jobs, make friends, and meet partners (Babe, 2018).
South Korea has a “Family Registry'' system, whereupon registration, a family relationship certificate is issued with detailed personal data of an individual’s parents, children, and spouse. This publicly discloses an individual’s family members in previous and subsequent generations (Ko & Han, 2019). In contrast, the U.S. birth certificate system only discloses an individual’s parents, something everyone has, and does not make public other family relations, most importantly, children. Failure to report a newborn baby in the Family Registry system in South Korea will result in the child not being issued a social security number nor be guaranteed any civil rights, health care, or mandatory public education. When born out of marriage, it is solely the parents’ duty, or the mother’s duty to register with the Family Registry system (Oh, 2021).
Strict policies to enforce family registration have increased the number of infants abandoned at the “Baby Box,” a privately operated safe haven location (Hyun, 2013). There is much legal and political contention surrounding the “Baby Box” as some policymakers argue its existence encourages child abandonment. However, “Baby Box” does not support nor advocate for mothers to abandon a child; it simply provides a safe location for an abandoned infant to ensure care and survival.
South Korea lacks legal protection for mothers to deliver anonymously or surrender their babies safely. Therefore, many mothers resort to delivering in secret without immediate medical care to circumvent records in the family registry. No law prevents the government from prosecuting parents who leave their unharmed child at a Baby Box, nor is there a safe alternative for abandoned infants if the government decides to close the Baby Box facility forcibly (Choi, 2019). Ultimately, the Baby Box prevents deceased abandoned babies.
The growing controversy of the “Baby Box” has led to the proposal of the Anonymous Birth Policy, which would allow women to give birth anonymously. It states that when a child is up for adoption, the mother's identity is concealed to ensure privacy (Kim, 2020). Also, once the child becomes 16 years old, they can request their biological mother's personal information when the biological parent agrees to disclose it. This ‘confidential birth service’ has received a positive evaluation regarding accessibility for unwed mothers and safe abandoned sites for babies, sustainability as it increases chances of abandoned child survival, and publicity for social awareness (Han, 2018).
Unfortunately, opponents to the proposed alternative claim the policy is not necessarily advantageous for the child. For example, there are claims that the passages of an Anonymous Birth Policy in countries such as France, Germany, and Czechia infringe upon a child’s right to know his or her parents and to be reared by them. Others have reasoned that the Anonymous Birth Policy would undermine the Special Adoption Act, a set of qualification requirements for the adoption of a child in need of protection, adoption procedures, and matters relating to assisting such adoptions, which advances the rights and welfare of adopted children (Special Adoption Act). Furthermore, there are concerns that Korean adoptees are generally children of socio-economically disadvantaged women, which may marginalize unwed mothers, even more, implying that unmarried people are not qualified to raise and separate birth mothers and children (Jeong, 2021). It is necessary to consider respecting and supporting various family forms, away from the idea that only normal families can raise children in the domestic sphere and for collective global social welfare.
Policymakers are faced with the difficult task of considering the economic, social, and political implications of a new law; however, preserving life should be of utmost importance. When safe surrender locations are not available, desperate mothers might find that abandonment is their only option, and this dangerous decision largely leads to the death of an infant. The government should consider the decriminalization of infant abandonment and the establishment of safe locations to provide a short grace period where the mother can safely surrender her child so that a new life is faced with surrender, and not death.