Korean adoption

“Abandonment”: A Disconnect in Adoption

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There is a huge disconnect in public discourse related to the subject of adoption. I believe that this disconnect is directly related to the fact that the dominant voices that “own” the conversation about adoption do not include the voice of the natural mother, when women are kept silenced and invisible in shame and blame for a traumatic event that often they had no control over. The dominant voices belong to others, and others often attempt to speak for us.

A small example of an event illustrating the unintentional but systemic marginalization of the voices of natural mothers (and adoptees) is provided by Lorraine Dusky, in her excellent article on mothers in Korea, who describes a personal experience of marginalization at a conference.

About the program for creative works, primarily attended by adoptees and natural mothers:

the program … was scheduled late in the evening and held in one of the more distant buildings… the only people who were present were a handful of adoptees, their friends and partners, and ALL the birth mothers … the overwhelming participation [at the conference] was of adoptive-mother-academics

And about the conference in-general:

… Everyone was at least marginally polite, but I did feel like a stranger in a strange land there. The academics did not seek me out. I was more of a…um, pariah.

It is no social coincidence that the main body of “academics” at the conference were primarily adoptive mothers — adoption is more popular and accessible among the more educated and “monied” classes in our society, and, on the other hand, mothers are often pressured by poverty to surrender babies.  As well, a career in academia can often entail putting off reproduction until fertility is no longer assured.

This experience will sound familiar to those whose voices are marginalized and disenfranchised, whose voice is not heard in the “dominant discourse.”

And the dominant discourse surrounding adoption (and of course its underlying paradigm) involves the repetition and acceptance of the theme of “abandonment.”

The main focus of Lorraine’s article is about a recently published article about mothers being forced and coerced by lack of resources and social pressure to surrender their babies for adoption. Sounds familiar? Happened to thousands if not millions of mothers in Canada United States, Australia, the U.K., for decades. It was called the Baby Scoop Era. But this latest story is focused on Korea:  “Group Resists Korean Stigma for Unwed Mothers,” where the Baby Scoop Era obviously has not ended. This is tragic, because this systemic coercion of mothers in Korea was also pointed out 21 years ago, in the article “Babies for Sale”(Progressive, 1988, see footnote). Has no-one been listening for the past two decades?

With “Western” governments and society finally acknowledging their human rights responsibilities and providing at least token support and resources to mothers, the demand for babies has moved overseas to other nations where mothers are still vulnerable, where women are still second-class citizens, and human rights abuses and acts of reproductive exploitation go unnoticed and unchallenged. Similar to the Baby Scoop Era in Western nations, adoption serves in placed such as Korea as a “social safety valve” to remove the children of single mothers and provide them to strangers who are judged to be “more deserving” of their babies than they are. I know this feeling all too well — others were judged by society, Victoria General Hospital, and the government social wrecker adoption worker to be “more deserving of, more entitled to” my own beloved baby.

The disconnect?  The dominant discourse surrounding babies for adoption focuses on “abandonment,” exemplified by article such as this one, “South Korea’s troubled export: babies for adoption“:

Thousands of babies are still abandoned every year due to divorce, economic hardship and the difficulty of raising children in a society that sometimes looks on single mothers with scorn.

Now, I would state that a mother who surrenders her baby under pressure is not “abandoning” her baby. Abandonment has many implications: that the parent is performing the act out of genuine free will, that the fate of their child (life, death, injury) is of no concern for them, the child is rejected and unwanted, and is being  “disposed of” like some inconvenient garbage. The parent can freely be reviled and considered to be some sort of inhuman monster — after all, what kind of loving parent would abandon their child? Society justifiably considers child abandonment to be a crime.  Is it surprising that reading this phrase in her adoption paperwork would be upsetting to the adoptee involved?

“For reasons of their own they abandoned the baby…”

But are these the words of a mother who has abandoned her baby?

“I need to see him, and that I wasn’t the one who sent him away … I lost everything when I lost my child.”

These are the words of the Korean mother in the trailer for the film Resiliance.  Exiled from her baby, can anyone truly believe that she “abandoned” him?

As a mother who also lost her beloved newborn baby to adoption, I know what she and other exiled mothers must have experienced, the extreme pain they must feel and likely must still be feeling.  A mother who “abandons” her baby feels none of this. I do wonder:  Would these heartless people actually think that I also had abandoned my baby?

…. a delivery table as flat as an ironing board, my arms strapped down to the sides, feet up in stirrups … a sheet put up in front of my face to prevent me from seeing him. they whisked him away as soon as the cord was cut … not allowed to see or hold my baby. Never told I had any rights …

In Korea:

“After delivery at a hospital, the baby is taken from the mother …”(from “Babies for Sale“)

“Myung-ja Noh had no choice in giving up her baby for adoption. Her relatives took her baby to a hospital, which then contacted an adoption agency that came and took the baby away.”
(from “Resiliance“)

How different is this, in Korea, from what was done to mothers here in North America? How it is “abandonment” when a mother’s baby is taken from her, when resources and support are withheld? When her voice is silenced under oppression from those who have the power to take away her baby and withhold it from her? When someone listens to the voices of Korean mothers, it is not abandonment that is spoken of, it is trauma:

“She initially made contact with over 30 different birth mothers, interviewed six and planned to include three in her documentary. She said that the unifying thread between all the mothers is the devastating impact it has had on their lives.”

On a personal note, is “abandonment” also the rationale that the people who adopted my baby used, in order to feel entitled to “claim” him as their own? Was this the justification they used In order to lay down the law post-reunion that they were his only family, his sole mother and father? Is the assumption of “abandonment” the underlying theme that can be used in order to dismiss the enduring love a natural mother may have for her lost child?

The next time you hear of a baby being “abandoned” and adopted — even if it is in another nation, another culture — consider what this says about the natural mother of that baby.   Think about what happened to her. Did she really “abandon” her baby? Or was she forced to surrender her baby by lack of resources? By her family? By a hospital or an adoption agency?   Read this article about single mothers in Korea.  Read Mei-Ling’s story of how her parents were forced to surrender her in order to save her life.  Read about the crimes committed in the name of “international adoption.” Do you still consider her to be a “heartless abandoner”?

If the voices of natural mothers were actually heard and listened to, instead of marginalized and dismissed, if our experience of the (often violent and traumatic) loss of our babies were acknowledged, would the word “abandoned” be applied to readily, be so much a part of the dominant theme of adoption? The disconnect between the dominant theme, of “child abandonment,” and the experience of the natural mother who has no choice, should be recognized, explored, and eliminated in the adoption discourse.

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Disconnect [noun]: a lack of or a break in connection, consistency, or agreement (Merriam-Webster). an unbridgeable disparity (as from a failure of understanding) (The Free Dictionary)

Excerpt from “Babies For Sale,” exposing blatant coercion of unwed mothers in Korea:

“‘According to the questionnaire that we distribute at the orientation interview, 90 percent want to keep the babies, says Kim Yongsook, the director of Ae Ran Won. But after counseling, maybe 10 per cent will keep them. We suggest that it’s not a good idea to keep the baby’…. After delivery at a hospital, the baby is taken from the mother.. ” (“Babies for sale. South Koreans make them, Americans buy them,” 1988)