Consensus needed firstUnder the fourth government “Healthy Family Outline for 2021-2025” approved by the Cabinet earlier this week, legal families bound by marriage, blood and adoption will be broadened to include unmarried couples and foster homes. The basic outline can trigger various changes in the traditional family concept and legal challenges that require thorough discussion and consensus to minimize conflict and side effects.
The outline proposes fundamental changes to the conventional patriarchy and family of blood tradition in Korea. It wants to accept children of unwed couples as family and stop using discriminatory “out-of-wedlock” phrasing. Fujita Sayuri, a Japanese celebrity active on Korean TV, has recently made headlines for giving birth through a sperm donor without being married. Such births are common in Europe.
A foster home caring for abused children being recognized as a legitimate family along with seniors partnering or cohabiting can be appropriate in a society wiht a low birthrate and fast aging. The outline also suggests giving the couple the liberty to choose the surname of their child instead of adhering to the father’s name. A single parent also could find it easier to register a birth.
These changes could stir socio-economic changes and public perspectives to lead to amendments in civil and family relation laws. Korean society has already undergone sweeping changes in the definition of family to the extent of family breakups. The share of traditional families with parents and children fell to 30 percent in 2019, from 37 percent in 2010. One-person households instead rose to 30 percent. Households of one or two people take up 58 percent. Changes in the laws and systems have long been overdue.
The government outline needs to go through a legislative review and approval. The move could be strongly opposed by conservative religious groups who prize the traditional family concept and value. If the out-of-wedlock definition is scrapped, the concept of fatherhood would become ambiguous and clash with existing laws. Including same-sex couples as unmarried cohabitants also could stoke controversy. When cohabitation of older adults is accepted, there could be dispute over inheritance.
The outline should be discussed in hearings and forums to examine possible side effects. The Ministry of Gender and Family and Justice Ministry must collaborate to design amendments that uphold and better individual dignity and happiness.