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'Aborting the future'

Alarm about low birthrates brings official attention to abortion in South Korea

'Aborting the future'

SOUTHERN LIVING: A 29-year-old who has decided to keep her baby is seen at the Duri Home, a center for unwed mothers in Seoul. (Jean Chung/The International Herald Tribune/Redux )

South Korea is mired in contradictions when it comes to abortion. Abortion there is illegal, and has been since 1953 for all cases except rape, incest, or severe genetic disorder—and last year South Korea’s highest court upheld the ban. But for six decades abortions have been common and cheap, costing only about $200.

South Korea has had one of the highest abortion rates in the world—largely because the government has ignored the problem. A 2005 study estimated that South Korea had about 340,000 abortions a year in a population of 50 million: That’s about double the U.S. rate. Only 30 cases have come to court, and most led to puny fines and probation instead of the heavy fines and prison sentence the law mandates. 

The law hasn’t changed, but the government’s position has. A generation ago South Korean officials worried about the country’s increasing population. South Korea’s birthrate hovered at 4.5 children per woman in the 1970s. The government even offered men exemption from mandatory army reserve duty in exchange for free vasectomies.

Now, with South Korea’s birthrate dipping to 1.19 children per woman, one of the lowest in the world, officials want more babies. In 2009, President Lee Myung-bak called for “bold” steps to increase the nation’s birthrate. The government started blaring public service announcements saying, “With abortion, you are aborting the future.” 

The South Korean pro-life movement is also growing. The most vocal group is an organization of obstetricians and gynecologists called Gynob, spearheaded by Seoul obstetricians Shim Sang-duk and Choi Anna. Shim in 2009 stopped doing abortions and held a press conference with other abortionists to ask for forgiveness. Then he essentially sent a cease and desist message to fellow obstetricians, beseeching them to stop all abortion practices—or he and other pro-life doctors would report their illegal abortions to judicial authorities. 

Shim said he received trickles of support from Christian churches but “severe criticisms” from his fellow doctors and from feminists. Shim’s Ion Women’s Clinic has suffered financially since the cash flow from abortion ceased: “Even so,” Shim said, “I don’t regret my decision in the least.” 

Shim, who is nonreligious, said he “sold his soul” by performing about 4,000 abortions in the past 20 years. He decided to stop when he could “no longer deny the cost of tragic destruction to unborn victims, women, and the sanctity of medical profession.” He has “faith that one day medical professionals in South Korea will reform and practice their profession with self-dignity and pride.”

A hush-hush topic

South Koreans don’t debate “when life starts.” A baby is 1-year-old immediately after birth, which means at least historically and culturally, Koreans believe life begins in the womb. But four other factors underlie South Korean attitudes about abortion: 

• South Koreans show little compassion for an unmarried pregnant woman. An unmarried mother suffers financially, and she and her child also bear society’s lashes of disapproval.  

• The idea that a child belongs to the parent is deeply rooted within Korean culture. 

• Three out of 10 South Koreans identify with Christianity, but many Christians, while personally opposing abortion, are silent in the public sphere.

• Abortion is still extremely hush-hush in Korean society. As rampant as abortion is in Korea, significant levels of shame and guilt surround it. —S.L.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.