by Christla PETITBERGHIEN (Haitian adoptee raised in France), Eunseo KIM, Jiyun JEONG, Jung HEO, Sum Yin Shek, submitted as part of their academic course: The Politics of Values.
In our current society, the area regarding the issue of adoptees and social policies related to adoption are pretty much hidden and invisible. There are plenty of reasons for such a tendency; isolation and alienation, emphasis on normal society, less prioritized, and so on. Hence, we became aware of the fact that those issues should be enlightened enough worldwide so that their rights are protected and people are engaged. In order to achieve such a purpose, we should have a better understanding of the family-building value, the identity and rights issue of adopted children and women, so that their rights can be discussed and handled thoroughly.
We have chosen to focus on the practice of transnational adoption in South Korea since this topic, which remains largely undiscussed in the academic field, is an eminent political issue that involves many ethical and conflicting value questions regarding the issue of family-making and the right to parenthood but also because one of our teammates is herself an adoptee who was already interested by this topic. International adoption constitutes a form of stratified reproduction, enabling some to engage in child-rearing while making it impossible for others to do so. The process of adoption relies on family construction throughout the de-kinning of other families, so starting from this observation,
we wanted to understand the way in which a family comes to be destroyed and, in this way, to see how adoption testifies the ideals and the social-political values of societies regarding family-building. In order to understand this, we needed to look at the situation of biological parents, especially biological mothers’ situations and the factors that force them to separate themselves from their offspring, as well as the agency’s degree they have in this process and the contribution of the state to the social and economic incapacity of certain individuals to form a family. We wanted to understand how political values influence the use of adoption by states as a biopolitical tool for population management and reproduction control. We focused on the situation of Korean single and biological mothers as a case study highlighting the more global problems of transnational adoption, as
Korea remains one of the major child donor countries despite its current status as a developed country.
While in search of the interviewee, we came across the work of Hosu Kim, “Birth mothers and Transnational Adoption Practice in South Korea; virtual mothering (2016)”. As an expert who has specialized in child adoption, especially transnational adoption, we decided that she would be able to provide us insights into the questions that we had and therefore chose her as our interviewee. Hosu Kim is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. She got her Ph.D. in Sociology at the Graduate Center, CUNY and M.A. in Sociology at Indiana State University. Her research interest is mainly focused on transnational adoption and reproductive politics. Her selected publications are Decolonizing Adoption Narratives for Transnational Reproductive Justice, co-authored with Sunghee Yook and The Biopolitics of Transnational Adoption in South Korea: Preemption and the Governance of Single Birthmothers, in which she explains South Korea’s international adoption functioning as biopolitical technology, how the government controlled and regulated unwed mothers and their children to displace the abnormal citizens.
The questions asked during the interview are the following: (1) Is traditional social stigma
regarding “normal family” in Korea getting in the way of not only single mothers raising a child on their own but also keeping a child instead of sending them for adoption? (2) What was the reason that made you focus specifically on South Korea regarding the issue of international adoption? How did transnational adoption function as a biopolitical technology in South Korea? (3) Has capitalism overridden the true value of the child-welfare ethics and the right to rear their own child by commodifying the children especially within the overseas adoption industry? Does the growing demand for adoptable children in Northern Global Countries challenge the respect of birthmothers’ reproductive rights? (4) Does a single pregnant woman really have a “choice” when it comes to deciding adoption? If not, what factors put these women into the state of ‘having no other choice’? (5)
Do you believe the political weakness of biological parents serves the interests of other actors of adoption such as adoptive parents and the state? (6) What kind of changes should/could be made about the adoption policy in the future?
In our group, there are five members including Christla PETITBERGHIEN, Eunseo KIM, Jiyun JEONG, Jung HEO, and Sum Yin Shek. The common work of all five of us includes coming up with the interview questions, doing research on each part, participating in the interview process asking questions, and writing each paragraph for the corresponding part. Christla has come up with the topic and found the interviewee, Eunseo did the research on the interviewee’s work and was in charge of contacting the interviewee, and Jung categorized all the possible questions and regrouped them for the finalized set of interview questions. As for the report, Christla and Jung wrote the introduction, Eunseo and Sum Yin wrote the conclusion, and Jiyun finalized the paper by unifying the overall literary style.
Analysis of the interview
- The influence of traditional family norms in Korea to single mothers
The whole single mother issue should not be simply generalized as East Asian culture. Rather, it is a combined issue including economic, social and legal barriers in Korea, which hinders single mothers from raising children on their own. The traditional cultural prejudice plays a huge role. However, it is the legal framework that primarily blocks single mothers from registering their own children under their name. There is a colonial legal system which is called “Hojuk” in South Korea and which acts as a fundamental framework that constructs the family structure. And so often, the structure is patriarchal, meaning only a man has the privilege or prerogative to recognize one’s paternity. As a result, up until its abolishment in 2005, single mothers in Korea could not legally claim their own children as theirs. And when these single mothers decide to raise their own children rather than sending them away, they have often skirted around the legal barrier by registering their children under the name of their male siblings or their own father. Hence, combing with all the wealth gap, gender gap, job availability, all the other social and economic factors, it is hard life circumstances for the women rather than a simple conservative cultural reason.
- About the interviewee’s interest in adoption issue in South Korea
South Korea is one of the largest countries sending children to international adoption. Beyond such statistics, for Professor Kim, personal experience studying as an international student in the US led to the interest in the intertwined history of South Korea and the United States. Frequently meeting people who have adopted and raised Korean children in mundane conversation ended up asking why there are so many orphans, especially sent away to overseas adoption. South Korea’s international adoption practice lasted 70 years, tracking back from the Korean war to today when squid game and parasites are everywhere. The dissonance between sending Korean children and establishing the proud Korean culture can be understood in the term, the biopolitical technology. The Korean government and its norms define what is a normal family, entitling who is adequate to raise children. It included controlling and stigmatizing unwed mothers, forcing those ‘inadequate’ mothers to send their children. Also, it was a consistent operation of normative citizenship removing underserving citizens from South Korea; people with mixed race or born to presumably sex workers in camptown or children from orphanages or single mother were regarded as a typical abnormal sector of the populations. Hence, South Korea’s nation building process, which was very capitalist and patriarchal, included forced displacement of the inadequate surplus population.
- Capitalism and the international adoption industry
Hosu Kim also pointed out how capitalism has supplanted the true value of the child welfare ethic and the right to raise one’s own child by commodifying children, particularly in the international adoption industry. The genesis of transnational adoption is part of the practice of the humanitarian market. Humanitarianism is associated in the collective mind with the idea of virtue yet humanitarianism functions as a non-profit sector of global capitalism. In the 1950s and 1960s, many adoption agencies became not-for-profit institutions, but also seen as child welfare institutions. These agencies had some type of children’s welfare in their name and, as a result, many citizens confused these adoption agencies with children’s welfare institutions, which had nothing to do with this exchange of money. It was a deliberate disguise that allowed many adoptions to take place. The lack of knowledge of the many biological families involved about the exact procedures of the adoption and the amount of money exchanged in return for their children as well as the confusion they make between the name of the agencies and the child welfare was exploited to make them accept the adoption separation. Therefore, not only that, their parenting right, their custody is uprooted, but through the adoption , they become rightless people to ask for any rights (right to information or even to know whether their children are still alive).
Furthermore, the questioning of the respect of the reproductive rights of the biological mothers is the result of the increasing demand of adoptable children in the countries of the North, because who says a greater Demand requires the necessity to look for more Supply. In international adoption, there is a logic of supply and demand chain. But today the number of adoptions is decreasing with the development of medical reproductive techniques and many feminist researchers have looked at this global reproductive assembly line and the case of surrogacy and the similarities it has with adoption. One can indeed wonder what kind of work all these long-unrecognized biological mothers have done? Have they been surrogate mothers in spite of themselves?
- Adoption not as a choice
Based on the estimate that about 40% of all adopted children in South Korea in 2005 were relinquished at or transferred from maternity homes, it raises curiosity regarding the regulatory functions that maternity homes have undertaken. The research done by Hosu Kim about maternity homes in South Korea for single pregnant women back from 1980s until mid 2000s reveals the reality of rightless single mothers.
Most single pregnant women face exclusion and hostility from their communities after disclosing their pregnancy, and often coming to a situation where their male partners derail from the relationship or are not able to support them financially. The maternity home is one of very few options to those who are in desperate need of shelter, food, protection, and medical facilities. As a result, many of these women take refuge in maternity homes. However, from the instant of the arrival, they are inquired into their plans for the baby’s future without being fully informed of options and choices, and the screening questions give the sense to the single mothers as if there are only two answers: either relinquishing the baby or taking full responsibility of keeping the child despite their hostile living conditions.
During their stay at the maternity home, adoption constantly floats not just as one of the options but as the only viable one. Without a very clear idea of what adoptions might look like, and what it would feel like after the birth, single pregnant women face info sessions with the adoption agencies and even potential adoptive parents. They make consultations in which they solicit babies from pregnant women. During these sessions, a lot of catharsis moments and a sense of consolation and reassurance are exchanged, putting the hope into the birth mothers that once they rebuild their life, they can meet the adoptees. The reality that lies in this process is that maternity homes are operated in a very close network with adoption agencies as 40~50% of maternity homes are founded and operated directly by them. Although maternity homes seem as though they help the single mothers prepare to return to society, away from the “shameful past” and difficult memory and back into the normal site, there is no room for birth mothers to acknowledge and to claim their motherhood.
- Interest dynamics within the actors of adoption process
It is now obvious that the political weakness of birth parents serves the interests of other actors within the process of adoption, such as adoptive parents, the state, and adoption institutions. Under the name of ‘children welfare center’, these agencies disguise the seriousness of commercialization of this transnational child adoption industry, and even furthermore, having birth mothers unwillingly become a surrogate to their children. Parenting is considered a basic moral thing as a human, which is naturally expected for parents to raise their children under whatever circumstances they are situated in. While birthmothers, in general, have more responsibility for their children in this gendered society, birth parents being considered “morally delinquent” definitely results in the silence of the birth family. For instance, 10% of adoptees are presumably missing children who lost their way around in their neighbourhood, and moreover women run away from inhumane unliveable living conditions such as domestic violence, leaving behind their children. Often the birth families unexpectedly find their children in adoption later. What’s worse is that the whole secrecy around adoption conceals the uncomfortable yet important truth of it, such as 11-15% of the adoptees experiencing abandonment from their adoptive family and being re-adopted. They way birth families are easily perceived as a morally deprived, indigent people not being capable nor having rights to reproduce serves to their political weakness, or at least questioning their rights. In this neoliberal capitalistic society, self sufficiency and self responsibility is viewed as the norm, which makes people lacking them be taken away from their reproductive rights. All of such problems linked to the transnational adoption requires the clarification of who is responsible for it, and the repair of the framework of reproduction and justice regarding these family issues.
- Possible future of adoption policy
Professor Kim first pointed out that if there is a clear order, no matter if it is ethical order, social order or moral order, if the beneficiary exists, so does the benefactor. However, if there isn’t, rather than reinforcing the power asymmetry between the countries or between involving parties, it actually can prolong and sometimes creates unnecessary hammocks and injuries. For the transnational option in South Korea right now, there are layers and layers of legislation which sort of block both parties, adoptees and birth family, from finding each other. So, by creating a special law or some type of legal framework whereby adoption and all the other related documents can be and should be made available, this means it would no longer just be the property of the individual agencies. The second point that Professor Kim is concerned about is repair. Repair should be thought of upon the 70 years long history of transnational adoption. There isn’t any fine line cutting out who’s fault it is, we cannot really distinguish if it is only one country’s fault or was there any violence involved. Under such conditions, this whole scene created a new ordinance and new imaginations of what to think about for repair and also for social justice.
We have been able to identify and analyze the dynamics within the issue of adoption,
particularly on the international adoption policies of South Korea, throughout the interview of Professor Hosu Kim. Adoption is a political issue as it functions as normative citizenship in the Korean government’s nation building, and also an ethical issue as it defines abnormal and inadequate mothers and children. By interviewing Professor Kim, we deepened the understanding of the biopolitics of adoption policies and recognized the lack of discourse about reproductive rights and capitalism related to the welfare design of supporting single mothers. Like the capitalist hierarchy between the states and the project of nation building brought about by adoption politics, the controversy between neo-liberal ideas and reproductive rights are opening diverse possibilities of a repaired framework of adoption. We hope the ethical and political dimension of adoption policies would further develop to promote the rights of adopted children and mothers.