It may be natural that the continuing rise in the number of babies born out of wedlock in Korea has drawn attention from many demographers who are concerned about the country’s low birthrate.
According to figures recently compiled by a lawmaker, the number of out-of-wedlock births climbed from 5,184 in 2002 to 8,363 in 2008 and further to 10,114 in 2012. As noted by experts, the increase over the decade might reflect Koreans’ changing perception of marriage and extramarital births, while the previous rise in the early 1990s was attributed mainly to insufficient heed to contraception.
In traditional Korean society that cherished Confucian values, having a child outside of marriage meant carrying a lifelong moral stigma. As recently as a generation ago, most unmarried people with a child took extra care not to let others know that they were parents.
Nowadays, the stigma on being a single mom or dad is beginning to lift, with many online communities created to share information and offer assistance among them. With young people delaying or avoiding marriage due to economic difficulties and egoistic lifestyles, the number of families formed in unconventional ways ― such as couples in common law marriage or premarital cohabitation ― has also been on a continuous rise.
These circumstances require government policymakers and our society as a whole to be more accommodating toward unconventional households and out-of-wedlock births.
In a country like Korea, which is struggling to boost its low birthrate, it is necessary to enhance support for unwed couples so that they will not opt for abortion to avoid disadvantages from having an extramarital child. A welfare system should be established to allow couples out of wedlock to be entitled to child care, health insurance and housing benefits. Currently, an unwed parent is paid 70,000 won ($65) each month until their child turns 12. The sum is too small to be of practical help.
Legal protection for children born outside of marriage should also be strengthened to stop them being discriminated against.
These considerations may not be welcomed by some people with conservative views. But all Koreans should now recognize that out-of-wedlock partnerships and children have become an increasing part of society.
In 2011, about 2.1 percent of newborns were born outside of marriage. This proportion represents a sharp increase from 1 percent in 2001 and 1.5 percent in 2005, but falls far below the average of the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which stood at 36.3 percent in 2009.
Such figures may suggest that Korea still remains swayed more by traditional perceptions of marriage and childbirth than other developed countries. But the large gap can also be viewed as pointing to the possibility that out-of-wedlock births will continue to climb in the coming years.
It is understandable that growing worries about the country’s low birthrate have been amplifying calls for more help in nurturing babies born outside of marriage. Korea is the only OECD member whose total fertility rate ― the average number of babies that a woman is expected to have between the ages of 15 and 49 ― has consistently remained below 1.3 since 2001.
Every possible measure should be taken to avoid the looming shrinkage of the country’s population. Nevertheless, it would be improper to encourage out-of-wedlock births solely for the purpose of boosting the birthrate or to disregard the positive values of family. The balanced approach should be to guarantee equal benefits so that unwed parenthood may not necessarily lead to hardship and unhappiness.