Illegal abortion, South Korea's open secret

SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - At a clinic in a fashionable area of Seoul, young women sit in plush leather couches waiting for a doctor to give them an illegal abortion.

Models of foetuses are displayed at an office of the Korea Pro-Life in Seoul March 25, 2008. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

By the hundreds of thousands each year South Korean women have gone to clinics like this, which operate in the open.

Abortions have been illegal for almost as long as South Korea has existed but, in an uneasy compromise, law enforcement officials have been willing to look the other way as long as qualified doctors perform the operation.

Many public health experts in South Korea are pushing for changes in the abortion law but face opposition from a strong pro-life lobby in a country with one of Asia’s largest percentages of Christians and a government trying to boost the lowest fertility rate in the developed world.

Some doctors are themselves reluctant to lose a lucrative income in cash or credit and mostly away from the eyes of tax officials.

“Abortions do bring in money,” said physician Park Sung-chul, who was forced to shut down his private clinic because of a substantial loss of income when he stopped doing the procedure.

The law allows for abortion only in cases where the mother’s health is at risk, the baby is to be born with severe birth defects or the pregnancy was caused by a sexual crime.

“Most abortions are for pregnancies out of wedlock and not for health reasons,” Park said.

According to the most recent figures, an estimated 350,000 abortions were performed in 2005. That is equivalent to about 80 percent of the total number of babies born that year.

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Doctors can face up to two years in prison or lose their licenses for illegal abortions, though only very few cases have ever gone to court.

It is also illegal for doctors to tell expecting parents the sex of their child because many families place a higher value on having boys than girls.

South Korea criminalized abortion in 1953 when its authoritarian leaders wanted to boost the population and build an army powerful enough to fend off its rival North Korea.

But by the 1970s, population growth was getting out of control, leading the country to draw up exceptions to the abortion law.

Yonsei University medical law and ethics professor Kim So-yoon, who headed a government-commissioned research team on how to reform abortion laws feels a sweeping change is needed.

“We should not let these laws, which were set up under different ideals, stay as they are,” said Kim.

Kim, with the backing of several women’s rights groups, is lobbying to widen the conditions under which abortion is permitted, seen as more expedient than striking down the old law and drawing up a new one.

Many South Korean Christians, who make up roughly a third of the population, are fighting the change.

“The government, under its family planning policy, has planted in people’s minds for the past 35 years the idea that there is nothing wrong with abortion,” Pastor Kim Hyeon-chul, one of the leaders in the pro-life movement, said.

South Korean society does not generally look favorably on young, single mothers, forcing many to seek abortions or give birth in secret and put their child up for adoption.

In the meantime, a proliferation of postings seeking abortion advice on the Internet suggests demand is as strong as ever.

“I’m a high-school student and would like to get an abortion,” read one anonymous posting on a clinic’s on-line counseling centre.

“How much is it, and do I need to go with my parents?”

Editing by Jon Herskovitz