Ad­vo­cates want to end abor­tion ban

Women and doc­tors can be locked up, but law is rarely en­forced

The Dallas Morning News - - World - Mo­toko Rich,

SEOUL, South Korea — Lee Na-yeon was 18 years old and in her first semester in col­lege when she dis­cov­ered, to her dis­may, that she was preg­nant.

Lee went to a hos­pi­tal and had an abor­tion. But as a grad­u­ate of a Catholic high school where she had been shown graphic videos por­tray­ing abor­tion as mur­der, she felt scared and tor­mented by guilt.

She had also bro­ken the law. Abor­tion is il­le­gal in South Korea with just a few ex­cep­tions, such as when a woman has been raped or her health is at risk. It is one of just a hand­ful of the world’s rich­est coun­tries to have such re­stric­tive abor­tion laws. Women can be sen­tenced to a year in prison or or­dered to pay fines of 2 mil­lion won, about $1,890, for hav­ing abor­tions, while doc­tors who per­form them can get up to two years in prison.

Now, a group of women’s ad­vo­cates is push­ing to over­turn the ban, and the coun­try’s Con­sti­tu­tional Court is set this year to re­view a case that chal­lenges the law’s con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity.

Last fall, more than 230,000 peo­ple signed an on­line pe­ti­tion sub­mit­ted to the pres­i­den­tial of­fice, known as the Blue House, call­ing for abor­tion to be le­gal­ized.

The ac­tivists are seek­ing to bring the law closer to the cur­rent re­al­ity. The ban on abor­tion is rarely en­forced, and it is rel­a­tively easy for women to find will­ing doc­tors at clin­ics. Ac­cord­ing to a gov­ern­ment es­ti­mate, based on a sur­vey of women of child­bear­ing age, 169,000 abor­tions were per­formed in 2010, the lat­est year for which data is avail­able from the Health and Wel­fare Min­istry.

That num­ber, which rep­re­sents close to 16 abor­tions per 1,000 peo­ple, gives South Korea the 10th-high­est abor­tion rate among the 35 mostly high-in­come coun­tries that are mem­bers of the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment.

But in­de­pen­dent anal­y­sis by pub­lic health schol­ars sug­gests that the real num­ber is much higher. Ac­cord­ing to re­search by Park Myung-bae, a pro­fes­sor at Pai Chai Univer­sity in the city of Dae­jeon, the an­nual tally is as high as 500,000 or more — greater than the num­ber of ba­bies born in South Korea in 2016.

And few women or doc- tors are pros­e­cuted for abor­tion. Last year, ac­cord­ing to the South Korean Supreme Court, just 25 such cases went to trial, with four lead­ing to con­vic­tions. For decades, the gov­ern­ment’s en­force­ment of the ban has waxed and waned with the pre­vail­ing pop­u­la­tion trends.

Ad­vo­cates call­ing for an end to the ban have long ar­gued that South Korea’s laws vi­o­late a woman’s right to make choices about her body. Even in the lim­ited in­stances when an abor­tion is le­gal, a woman must get per­mis­sion from her spouse or co­hab­it­ing part­ner.

Ad­vo­cates say the ban makes women seek­ing abor­tions vul­ner­a­ble to reprisals; boyfriends, former boyfriends, hus­bands and in-laws have re­ported women to the po­lice, ac­cord­ing to South Korean news re­ports.

Kim Jin-seon, head of the women’s health team at Women­link, a non­profit ad­vo­cacy group, said the abor­tion law is rooted in broader bi­ases against women in South Korea.

“Ev­ery­thing is re­lated to how the gov­ern­ment views the ex­is­tence of women, and whether they are just looked at as ves­sels to give birth or if they are con­cerned about the qual­ity of life of women as full-fledged cit­i­zens,” Kim said.

So far, the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in has agreed only to re­search the ques­tion of over­turn­ing the ban. In a video state­ment in re­sponse to the pe­ti­tion, Cho Kuk, a se­nior pres­i­den­tial ad­viser, said the ad­min­is­tra­tion hoped to “find a new bal­ance” in a de­bate about the rights of women and fe­tuses.

He ac­knowl­edged that the abor­tion ban was “mak­ing the op­er­a­tion more ex­pen­sive and push­ing peo­ple to get dan­ger­ous pro­ce­dures or even to travel over­seas.”

Lee Jin-sung, chief jus­tice of the Con­sti­tu­tional Court, said dur­ing his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing that the court would con­sider mak­ing abor­tion le­gal for at least part of a preg­nancy.

A sup­porter of the ban is Choi Yi-hwa, 38, a part-time Korean teacher and mother of two who had one abor­tion in col­lege and another in her 20s. She said it took her years in coun­sel­ing to re­cover from her trauma and feel­ings of guilt.

“I still feel that there was sin in­volved,” she said. Keep­ing abor­tion il­le­gal, she said, forces women to think deeply about their de­ci­sion.

Jean Chung/The New York Times

Lee Na-yeon, now 23, said hav­ing an abor­tion made her feel dirty, though she came to re­al­ize it was the right choice. She now wants le­gal­iza­tion so other women won’t go through the anguish she did.

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