Will South Korea really abolish their anti-abortion law?

In November last year, the South Korean government announced that it’s archaic 64-year old abortion law will be reviewed in 2018. The decision was spurred by the more than 235,000 South Koreans who filed a petition demanding for the legalisation of abortion as well as access to the abortion-inducing drug mifepristone. On September 30th, the petition was posted on to the presidential website.

In South Korea, there are three laws which relate to abortion: The Mother and Child Health law, the Anti-Sex-trafficking act, and the Sexual Violence Prevention and Victims Protection Act. The petition targeted the Mother and Child Health law which specifically outlaws abortion unless in cases of rape, incest, severe hereditary disorders, or serious risk to the mother’s health and deems any abortion illegal if carried out after 24 weeks of pregnancy. Furthermore, a married woman cannot even pursue an abortion out of her free will alone – she must have her partner’s permission too.

From a geopolitical point view, their concerns relate to their “belligerent neighbour in the north” and being close to China, Russia, and Japan.

If caught violating these laws, a woman who has undergone an abortion can be reprimanded with up to a one year prison sentence or a fine of up to 2 million won ($1,820). Meanwhile, healthcare workers can be imprisoned for up to 2 years for performing an illegal abortion.

Needless to say, abortion is a ‘sensitive’ issue in South Korea. It is to the extent that the government refuses to even use the term ‘abortion’ – referring to the procedure as an “interruption of pregnancy” instead.

However, the government only cracks down on abortion when it fits their agenda. Over the past decades, they’ve been noted to overlook abortions to decrease their growing population rate which, at the time, was seen to be jeopardising South Korea’s economic growth. Also, between the 1950s-1990s:

  • Official posters which portrayed families with greater than 2 children as ‘unpatriotic’ were displayed in South Korean villages (1970-1980s).
  • Men who underwent a vasectomy did not have to serve mandatory army duty (till early 1990s).
  • Slogans such as ‘Begat a few and breed them well – better for you and better for them!”, ‘Beget only two, son or daughter, and breed them well!”, and “An only daughter well-bred makes it unnecessary to envy ten sons!” were widely spread by the government through the media and fertility control education and counselling programs (1970s-1980s).

The government now sings a different tune with the slogan  “If every family has two or three children, the future of Korea will be bright!” proudly displayed on their website. Why? Because their earlier policies were considered to be “too successful” as South Korea’s fertility rate plummeted from 4.5 children per women during the 1970’s to 1.19 children by 2008.

If caught violating these laws, a woman who has undergone an abortion can be reprimanded with up to a one year prison sentence or a fine of up to 2 million won ($1,820).

South Korea, an ageing population, now has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world and this concerns many local politicians due to the potential negative political, economic, and military ramifications. From a geopolitical point view, their concerns relate to their “belligerent neighbour in the north” and being close to China, Russia, and Japan.

Having an open dialogue about abortion is difficult, not only due to the current situation with fertility rates, but also because there’s a strong pro-life lobby group in the country. South Korea has one of the largest percentages of Christians for an Asian country and this has made it difficult for many public health experts to advocate for real changes to the law.

But, the government wasn’t able to shy away from this issue as in August the new president, Moon Jae-in, vowed to formally respond to petitions which garner over 200,000 signatures within a 30-day period. On November 26th, Cho Kuk, the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs released a statement that the government’s first aim would be to collect data on abortion rates, the motives of women who seek an abortion, and that “based on the outcome of this research, we expect to move relevant discussions one step forward”.

According to the most recent statistics for South Korea, an estimated 16,900 abortions occurred in 2010 – 6% of which were done legally.

According to Human Rights Watch, the government responded with a statement which “reeks of delaying tactics” and “buying time”.

I agree.

There is extensive evidence that women in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws still choose to undergo abortions. According to the most recent statistics for South Korea, an estimated 16,900 abortions occurred in 2010 – 6% of which were done legally. The only difference is that, without a lack of proper regulations, the practice becomes unsafe and potentially jeopardises a woman’s life. In fact, the United Nations stated that in 2011 the risk of an unsafe abortion was 4 time greater in countries with restrictive vs liberal abortion laws.

A woman’s right cannot be violated just because it does not fit within with the government’s agenda. We are granted these rights by virtue of being women, it is time to respect that.

Image: Emmanuel Dyan/Flickr