An Ophthalmologist Finds His Blind Spot and Helps Heal a Nation’s Heartbreak

Story in: Case Studies

In the late 80s, Dr. Richard Boas, 63, became the adoptive parent of a girl born in Korea. The ophthalmologist was already the biologic father of two older children and was running a medical practice. He was happy with his loving family and busy professional life. Yet something about the adoption itself rankled. “As much as I loved my child, there was something that always bothered me about her adoption,” Dr. Boas recalls. “I didn’t know quite what it was and my life was so busy that I didn’t focus on it.” He knew that he had adopted a child who was given up by an unmarried woman overseas. He thought he had lifted a burden from the mother and given her child a better life. Yet something didn’t feel right.

Dr. Boas never discussed the gnawing feeling that something was “wrong” with his adoption. Instead, as the years passed and he rejoiced in his relationship with his daughter, presently 24 years old, he focused on celebrating international adoption by helping other local families afford the steep costs of the process. “We worked on adoptions from China, Korea and Russia,” says Dr. Boas, “and I wanted to help promote this work.” In 2006, he asked the adoption agency he worked with to let him accompany their staff on their next trip to Korea. The agency readily agreed. From there, Dr. Boas’ journey took an unexpected turn.

Two experiences forced Dr. Boas to re-examine his beliefs about adoption. The first was a visit to the adoption agency’s nursery. “I had held newborn babies in nurseries before but I’d never held babies who would never see their mothers again,” he says. “These were healthy children who had been given up for adoption just a few days or weeks before my visit—babies who would be going off to adoptions either in Korea or overseas.”

The second experience was a visit to an adoption agency facility that housed unwed, pregnant women. “The women who were living there at the time were in their late teens and early twenties. They were in the late stages of their pregnancies and even though they hadn’t even given birth yet, every single one of them had already signed away their child. It was deeply unsettling.” Dr. Boas suddenly understood that rather than relieving these women of unwanted children, the adoption process was abetting a culture that coerced these women into giving up their children. “These mothers were made visible to me. Eighteen years ago, my own child’s mother could have been sitting at that same table, among a similar group of women.”

Dr. Boas was upset by what he had seen but he was also transformed: “By training, I’m an ophthalmologist who specialized in treating glaucoma. On that day, I found my own blind spot and resolved to do what I could to help Koreans address their own blind spot to mothers giving up their children.”

Dr. Boas called on Page Snow, Chief Philanthropic Officer of Foundation Source, to help him realize his vision, and get what would become the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN) off the ground. “Page was super,” Dr. Boas recalls. “We discussed where I wanted the situation in Korea to be, what I wanted to do as a respectful outsider (I’m not Korean), and how I could put the issue on Korea’s public agenda. We also discussed a timeline. While I wanted to support these mothers, fund research, and make this issue visible, I ultimately wanted to catalyze change in a country not my own. I wanted the Koreans to step up and address this problem.”

As Dr. Boas soon discovered, he had his work cut out for him. Under pressure, unwed Korean mothers overwhelmingly choose to terminate their pregnancies or give up their children. There is a 96% abortion rate among unwed mothers and of those who carry to term, 70% will give up her child to adoption. In other words, just one child out of 100 conceived out of wedlock will be brought up by the mother. By contrast, in America, just 1% of all unwed mothers relinquish their children to adoption.

The reasons for this discrepancy aren’t economic. In this relatively wealthy nation (Korea is the world’s 13th largest economy), Dr. Boas insists, the pressure is largely cultural: “It doesn’t take rocket science to understand that we’re all built to take care of the kids we bring into the world. But in Korea, there’s a terrible stigma to being an unwed mother. While the fathers are generally given a free pass, unwed mothers and their children are targets of discrimination. An unwed mother could lose her job or have trouble getting one; her child might be discriminated against in school. An unwed mother is said to bring shame on herself, her family, and the family of the child’s father.  If she gets pregnant, she alone is to blame.”

Dr. Boas realized that while he couldn’t forcibly change minds, especially as an outsider, he could raise awareness, fund demographic research, and lend moral and financial support to unwed mothers. “Starting in the early part of 2007, after a series of meetings with Page, I hired a consultant and made a series of trips to Korea to meet with social workers, media, academics, government officials, and facilities for unwed moms,” says Dr. Boas. His efforts to raise the Korean consciousness about the plight of unwed mothers met with success. “I was pleasantly surprised by the reception that we got. After two or three minutes, some of the people we’d be talking to would burst into tears because they recognized that these women were valid and had been rendered invisible by their society. Telling my own story was quite effective because people realized that I was there to promote the well being of mothers like my own daughter’s mother.”

By 2008, KUMSN was finding traction. “We could foresee that our meetings could catalyze real change,” says Dr. Boas. “We lost count of how many media interviews we had done. Foundation Source had been doing advising and back-office support but now they helped with the legal work and hiring specialist attorneys to form a legal entity under our family’s foundation, an LLC, so we could rent office space in Korea as well as hire an executive director and a small staff. The executive director was a Korean national working on behalf of her own people. The work continued at an accelerated pace.” In fact, Dr. Boas recently achieved his goal of being able to transfer the organization he founded into the hands of passionate, capable Koreans. “I knew that someday, my presence and presidency and dollars would no longer be needed. Koreans would grasp the issue and run with it.” KUMSN now has a new president, board and executive director. “It’s now a Korean NGO, not American,” says Dr. Boas with obvious pride. “They own this and with some temporary support from me over the next two years, they’ll move ahead. I have become President Emeritus. I couldn’t have done it without Page, [Foundation Source Philanthropic Director] John Oddy, Jeff Haskell, Chief Legal Officer, and Josh Springer and Alex Savin, Directors of Client Services East.”

As the ultimate tribute to his work, Dr. Boas was recently awarded Korea’s Civil Merit Medal by President Lee Myung-bak. Dr. Boas was one of just 24 medal recipients and the only foreigner to be so honored. “I took the award ceremony at the Blue House (Korea’s equivalent of the American White House) as formal government recognition of the issue of unwed mothers,” he says. “I hope that it demonstrates a Korean government commitment to address the issue and solve it.”