Advocates want to end abortion ban
Women and doctors can be locked up, but law is rarely enforced
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.
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.