It is a cliche in Korean soap operas for the vicious and disapproving mother of the male lead to pressure the female lead to “remove” the baby she’s expecting. She soon disappears, struggles through life as a single mom, and later by chance reunites with the man who, after finding out she didn’t give up the baby despite stigma and obstacles, falls back in love with her.
All of this is as if abortion were a valid option for women in South Korea.
Pro-choice activists hold up banners and images of female bodies carrying messages in favor of their right to self-determination at a protest in central Seoul on Nov. 9. Yonhap
But, under the anti-abortion law introduced in 1953, the termination of pregnancy is only permissible when the mother faces serious health risks or in cases of rape, incest or hereditary disorders. Even in those cases, abortion is prohibited after the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Yet, tens of thousands of abortions are estimated to be performed in the country each year, with an average of less than 10 prosecuted for the violations. Fewer actually face punishment.
The gap between law and reality is putting women and doctors out in the cold.
“I did not know much about the abortion law before. I thought you could get it done in the early stage of pregnancy,” Kim Eun-hee, who had her unwanted pregnancy terminated a couple of years ago, told The Korea Herald.
Kim recalled how lonely she felt and the difficulty she faced in finding a clinic, because abortions were done secretly. The social stigma against the procedure has also been a hardship she has to face alone.
“The law is there, but not everyone can adhere to it. They do not enforce it either. But then, it is still just too harsh on women,” Kim said. “I value life, and I also care about my life.”
A highly polarizing topic in the West, South Korea has rarely debated the abortion issue. Abortion is a taboo here, as typically has been anything linked to one’s sex life. It is something only those experiencing an unwanted pregnancy have to deal with personally. No major politicians have expressed a pro-life or pro-choice stance publicly, as it has never become an election issue.
Lifting the veil
The issue, long hidden away, was brought to the fore last month when the presidential office responded to a petition calling for the abolishment of the abortion ban.
The online petition, posted on the website of the presidential office on Sept. 30, called for decriminalization of abortion and legalization of abortion pills, citing women’s rights to their bodies. More than 230,000 people signed.
In his response, Cho Kuk, the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, acknowledged the glaring disparity between the strict law and actual practices and said the government would do fact-finding on the status quo and start gathering public opinions next year.
Mentioning the need for change, Cho, formerly a law professor, cautiously added the debate should not run between the rights of the fetuses and the women.
“The debate will not advance further with zero-sum thinking that we should choose between one of the rights. Both are precious values that society has to promote,” Cho said.
As the rare and direct statement from Cheong Wa Dae hinted at the possible revision of the current law, more voices on the pros and cons began to arise.
Religious and pro-life groups rose up to defend the law, as woman rights groups welcomed the stance.
The Korean Catholic Church said it would start a campaign to gather 1 million signatures for its own petition to Cheong Wa Dae. Titled “We oppose lifting the ban on abortion,” the petition directly confronts the former that prompted Cho’s response.
Women rights groups, seeing now as a pivotal time to confront Korean society’s hypocrisy on abortion, argue that if abortion is to be labeled a crime, men should be held accountable as well.
Time for a reality check
While exact data is not available on the number of abortions performed in Korea, various research shows the law is not acting to reduce it.
The Health Ministry estimates that abortions contracted from 342,000 in 2005 to 168,000 in 2010.
But a recent report published in a health journal estimates the number of abortions performed annually at 500,000. The Korean College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists puts the number at some 3,000 abortions performed daily -- which could be rounded to about 1 million such procedures per year.
According to Statistics Korea, 406,300 babies were born here in 2016.
Kim Dong-seok, chief of the Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says the outdated law puts the responsibility on pregnant women and doctors, and that social conditions should improve to give support for healthy pregnancies.
“The law has not been revised for 44 years, since it was introduced, and it is time to consider changing it to reflect popular opinion.”
In a society where sons were traditionally preferred over daughters, methods of inducing “natural” miscarriages were handed down through generations, including drinking lye or falling down stairs.
A history book on Korean culture by Kang Seong-hyun depicts the life of Koreans in the 1950s and introduces a statistic that more than 35 percent of women at the time had experienced at least one abortion, mainly attributed to concerns on poverty.
“In my mom’s generation, I heard abortions were common among married couples. They did it because they wanted a son and it was a girl or they just wanted no more children,” said Lee Sun-mi, a Catholic, who is married and now facing difficulty conceiving.
“It seems to me that we were a pro-choice society in the first place and the abortion ban is foreign.”
Next year’s survey on abortion trends and the public opinion gathering process could affect the Constitutional Court’s decision on the anti-abortion law. A complaint was filed in February to the court to review the abortion ban’s constitutionality.
In 2012, the top court ruled in favor of the current law, reasoning the fetus’s right to life is more important than a woman’s right to self-determination. Judges were evenly divided on the decision at that time, four against four. To rule a law unconstitutional, the typically nine-member court requires a majority decision of six judges.
Regardless of if the ban is struck down or not, experts say it is time for society to talk about abortion as a social issue -- not the personal problem of a woman experiencing an unplanned, or unwanted, pregnancy.
“Decriminalizing abortion may bring concerns on protecting the life of fetuses. But punishing abortion does not bring much benefit to society either,” Noh Dong-il, a professor at Kyung Hee University Law School, said. “Unofficial statistics show tens of thousands of abortions are performed every year, and it is important that we do talk about the issue now.”
Sociology professor Lee Na-young from Chung-Ang University echoed the view.
“Law exists not only to moderate conflicts occurring between individuals, but also to set the direction of a society. And it is crucial that the law is revised to fit the values of the era,” Lee added.
By Jo He-rim (firstname.lastname@example.org)