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[Editorial] Protect unregistered babies

Government and lawmakers urged to set up much-delayed new birth notification system

By Korea Herald

Published : June 26, 2023 - 05:31

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In South Korea, where the fertility rate remains at a record low, each and every newborn baby deserves proper care and attention. Unfortunately, some unregistered babies are exposed to fatal risks and horrendous crimes, due largely to irresponsible parents and the absence of a policy to protect babies.

The Board of Audit and Inspection found that a total of 2,236 babies born between 2015 and 2022 were undocumented after birth, and conducted a sample investigation into 1 percent, or 23 unregistered babies.

The result of the four babies in the sample probe were tragic. Two of the undocumented babies were found dead early last week inside a refrigerator in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, and a baby was found to have died from undernutrition in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province. And the whereabouts of another baby is unknown.

On Friday, a woman accused of killing her two newborns and keeping their bodies in a refrigerator was formally arrested on charges of infanticide. The suspect reportedly confessed to the crime, saying she strangled the babies due to economic difficulties.

In another case, the baby boy died about 76 days after he was born in Changwon last year. He reportedly did not receive any medical treatment or welfare benefits.

The police said the whereabouts of another baby born in 2021 in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, remains unknown. On Wednesday, police booked the mother in her 30s on charges of abandoning her baby, who claimed she handed over the baby to a stranger she got to know online, though police suspect foul play.

As the tragic cases of the undocumented babies came to light through the BAI investigation, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said it will conduct a full investigation into all babies who were not officially registered with the government despite having birth records in cooperation with local governments.

Apart from the state auditor’s sample probe, another infanticide case was reported Friday. Ulsan Nambu Police said that a dead baby had been found the previous day in a trash can at an apartment complex in Ulsan.

As a series of infanticide cases shocked the nation, major political parties belatedly announced they would work on legislation to help protect newborns by making it mandatory for hospitals to report births to the government and setting up a policy in which the government cares for undocumented infants.

The ruling People Power Party said the shocking cases were a “shame for the nation” and the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea said it will “do its best to prevent such horrendous crimes.” Health and Welfare Minister Cho Kyu-hong said last week the ministry will push for a bill for a new birth notification system by amending the Act on Registration of Family Relations.

Under the current system, parents are required to register a child’s birth within a month, but violations lead to a fine of just 50,000 won ($38), and hospitals have no obligation to report births to the government.

It is regrettable that the government as well as political parties have long failed to take action to protect babies from abuse and abandonment. It was in 2017 when the National Human Rights Commission of Korea raised the need for implementing a registration policy to protect babies. In May 2019, the government announced it would introduce the birth notification system. Over the past four years, as many as 15 revision bills related to the protection of newborns have been proposed at the National Assembly, but no legislative progress has been made.

The government’s push for the new birth notification system has been opposed by the medical sector. At issue is that hospitals do not want to take responsibility for newborns in connection with the reporting system as well as additional administrative burden.

However, if the government sets aside only a tiny fraction of the 280 trillion won budget it has dedicated to the country’s low birth rate since 2006, it will be able to set up a new online birth notification system that will not place any administrative cost on hospitals. The government can also check and monitor birth registrations by using medical records held by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency and the Health Insurance and Assessment Service.

The government and political parties have to work together to introduce the new birth notification system and related protection measures for both babies and their parents. There should be no more babies who do not get proper state protection.