Family Ministry looking to redefine the foundations of family
The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family on Tuesday said it began discussions on wide-ranging reforms to current family law, potentially upending longstanding customs and legal practices regarding marriage and children.
Addressing the issue of pregnancies and births out of wedlock, the ministry said it is drafting a bill that would redefine the definition and scope of the term “family,” which current law defines as being constituted through marriage, blood relations and adoption.
It is also reviewing proposals which would allow parents to decide whose surname their child will take.
Through its 4th Basic Plan for Healthy Homes (2021-2025), also announced on Tuesday, the ministry will also seek to expand public discussion of unmarried partnerships and non-traditional families.
In a press briefing the same day, Minister of Gender Equality and Family Chung Young-ai said, “As surveys show that 55 percent of people in their 20s and 56 percent in their 30s accept the idea of children being born outside of marriage, our social acceptance of births out of wedlock is increasing.”
Chung also pointed out that pregnancies and births outside of marriage “face restrictions, such as being ineligible for infertility support and certain procedures under the ethical guidelines of the Korean Association of Obstetrics and Gynecology.”
The ministry’s proposals appear to have been sparked by television personality Sayuri Fujita’s revelation on Instagram in November that she became a mother using donated sperm in Japan because hospitals in Korea would not conduct an in vitro fertilization procedure for single women.
In vitro fertilization for single women is not illegal in Korea. However, according to lawyer Hyeon Doo-ryoon, “It is realistically impossible.”
Public health clinics require proof of a legal or common-law marriage before conducting the procedure. Pregnancies and births out of wedlock are also not covered by public health insurance nor qualified to receive government support for fertility issues.
According to Chung, the ministry plans to conduct a public survey and hold consultations regarding current policies which cover sperm and egg donations and surrogate pregnancies.
The ministry’s wide-ranging proposals would also challenge longstanding traditional norms associated with Korean families.
Currently, article 3 of the Framework Act on Healthy Homes defines the term "family" as “the fundamental group unit of society formed by marriage, blood or adoption.” Chung’s remarks suggested this may soon change.
“Expanding the [current] definition or scope of family may change the discriminatory perceptions that underlie other laws,” Chung said.
Current laws addressing children distinguish between “children born in wedlock” and “children out of wedlock.” The ministry is considering eliminating the distinction between the two groups and simply calling them “children.”
The ministry previously considered proposals in 2018 to include common-law marriages in the scope of families as defined by law, but failed to pass any.
Such a change to the legal definition of families this time around would eliminate loopholes in current laws on domestic violence, which only address abuse or violence by a partner in a legal marriage.
Another norm challenged by the ministry would be the longstanding practice of children taking their father’s surname in a marriage.
Article 781 of the Civil Code gives default preference to the father's surname for a child’s surname. It is possible for children to take their mother’s surname only when a couple has agreed this should be the case before marriage.
However, the ministry's reform would allow a child’s surname to be decided by the parents at the time of birth.
While Chung said that the changes would “foster conditions so that all families would be respected without discrimination and not be excluded from policies,” the proposals have already attracted backlash.
The United Christian Churches of Korea released a statement on its website soon after Chung’s press briefing, saying that “caution is needed so that [the proposals] do not accelerate the disintegration and division of traditional families.”
BY MICHAEL LEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]