Friday, 17 July 2009

Abortion in Korea

Abortion is more or less forbidden in Korea.

First of all, a few words. My apologies to all those (too rare) people who were following this blog in the past. This interruption was due to several factors, of which the main one was linked to the writing of my MA, about cohabitation in Korea. In the future, I will do my best to update it more regularly. We’ll see if I succeed in this or not.

Let’s start now with today’s particularly polemical topic.
Why abortion?
I’d be tempted to say: why not? But somehow it would not be enough.
In fact, I’m interested in this topic because I think that the legalization of abortive practices are the sign that a society has reached a certain stage when it comes to power relationships between the genders. In other words, the absence of an effective right to carry out an abortion is the indication that women lack certain freedom as to the right to control processes in their bodies, and the sign of the symbolic control of women’s bodies by men.
Therefore, it’s possible to learn a lot about a given society by observing this society’s abortion practices.
Make no mistake. Abortion is almost always a traumatizing experience—an experience that can only be imagined by men, without being able to feel it in their own body—but we observe that in general the women, the couples, who intend to have an abortion will have it whatever the circumstances, with or without a legal framework. Legalizing abortion practices is not meant to promote abortion but to help people who find themselves in such a situation, so that the whole process be less traumatizing. Furthermore, we can also observe that, as in this article, the absence of freedom to abort is not synonymous with few abortions, we can logically conclude that the legalization, or not, of abortion is often related to ideological views that correspond to a certain vision of the world, often not in sync with the reality on the ground.

So, as I was writing a few lines above, abortion is more or less forbidden in Korea.
More or less?
Well. Somehow. Although it is not possible to say that it is illegal, the conditions under which it can be performed are very restrictive. This implies that in reality, it is only possible to have an abortion in a few situations.
What are these situations?

Sections 269 and 270 of the Korean penal code, dating from 1953, were strictly forbidding abortionm but was amended in 1973m by article 14 corresponding to the “Mother and Child Health Law”, authorizing it in the following circumstances: first, when the foetus presents mental or physical disabilities; second, when one of the parents suffers from an infectious disease; third, when the pregnancy results from rape; fourth, when the pregnancy results from a relation with blood or matrimonial relatives unable to marry by law; and fifth, when continuing the pregnancy could endanger the life of the mother. In all other cases, abortion is illegal and can be punished by fines or even imprisonment.

But it does not mean that abortions are rare in Korea.
On the contrary.
In fact, it even seems that Korea has one of the highest abortion rate in the world.
Given the fact it is illegal, it means that the only available official figures are based on abortions that have been registered under the right legal conditions (because a medic/gynecologist carrying out an abortion outside of this legal framework can have his license suspended for several years, on top of possible fines or theoretical jail sentences). In other words, they do not correspond to reality, and the only way to have an idea of the scale of these practices is to refer to various estimates.

If we look for information on abortion in Korea, we systematically find an estimate that indicates 1.5 million abortions per year. It is only an estimate, but that can be found very frequently, included in some “university” schoolbooks, so it cannot be ignored.
If we search a little bit more, we find other estimates. Some of them, even more alarming, mention 2 million abortions per year. And the ‘lowest’ of these estimates stands at about 350,000.

To give you a rough idea of what this represents, we can compare these figures with other countries. In France, with a population of about 62 million, the total number of annual abortions stood at 210,000 in 2006. In Japan, with more than 127 million people, this figure stood at 320,000 in 2003.
The Korean population stands at more than 48 millions. I let you calculate the number of abortions in proportion of the population.

Even if we take the lowest estimate, we realize that Korea has a particularly high number of abortions in comparison with France and Japan.
The question is: which one of these estimates is right?
We can wonder about the huge variations between different estimates, because between 350,000 and 1.5 or even 2 millions, this is an incredible difference. How credible are these data ? That’s the problem. We can see that such variations has probably ideological origins implying the ones in favor of abortion and the ones against it (or, as our American friends would put it ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life; a use, and manipulation of language that would almost be funny (with the insistence shown by the Americans to systematically use a wording refusing to use negations – let’s be positive!!!) if the subject was not so essential) whose goal might be to shock by exaggerating figures.

It is interesting to note that anti-abortion laws, which intend to reduce such practices, seem to be having very little effect, or not at all. For, how can we even realistically imagine that an eventual legalization of abortion would result into a rise in numbers given the already sky-high figures that can be observed ?

During my Korean adventures, I had the occasion to meet several Korean women with whom I could discuss the subject. I could get the confirmation, first-hand—from women having carried out an abortion—that terminating a pregnancy in Korea (in Seoul) was very easy, practiced in most hospitals, and relatively affordable (300,000 wons a few years ago, which is about 170-180 Euros at today’s exchange rate, but rather 250 euros at the time (maybe about $250))
For information, we need to be aware of the fact that public hospitals are pretty scarce in Korea, most of them are private, clinics, whose tend to focus more on profit that public ones. Abortion is therefore practiced entirely illegally et without any link with the Korean social security system (except in the rare cases that are done within the legal framework).

Abortion is common that a Korean woman—who had had an abortion herself—was adamant in saying that aborting was legal. Even when I heavily insisted she did not ‘believe’ me when I was telling her it was simply not the case, that it was illegal, except in a few situations.

This story made me realize how common abortion was in Korea. For how else would you come to think that it is legal unless the whole process leading to terminating a pregnancy is ordinary? Those who have seen the Romanian movie “4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days’ about clandestine abortion will understand what I mean. Illegality usually leads to clandestine and dodgy conditions, but it is not the case in Korea. We observe a total opposition between theory, law, and the way its application, its practice.
A recent study, form 2003-224, led among female students indicated that 36.3% of the sample did not know that abortion was illegal !! Is that even imaginable? It looks like it is, and it’s probably due to a political will to not talk to the public about this topic. Abortion is simply one of numerous taboo subjects in Korea. One among so many others…

It’s also very interesting to note that there are very few people sentenced for having violated abortion laws. Jurisprudence shows that abortion is only very rarely punished (45 cases in 1990, only 5 sentenced). And there’s a reason for it! If there really are as many abortions as estimated, judging several hundred thousand people would just be impossible. And you would still need to catch them anyway.

But this split between theory and practice does not seem to incite the Korean government to change anything in this matter. Lee Myung-bak’s government is far too demagogical to start going against anti-abortion lobbies and possibly damage his family man image.

As a result, Korean women have no other choice than having a ‘semi-clandestine’ abortion (in fact, these abortions are only clandestine by name (as far as authorities are concerned) since they are carried out in a hospital) until a possible revision of the law; when it will have become so obsolete (which it already is) that politicians will have no other choice than to eventually officialize a practice already widespread in society.

A 2003 survey with people in their 20s and 30s confirmed these practices and the discrepancy between public opinion and the law. It indicates that 72.1% of women and 65.4% of men could carry out an abortion depending on the circumstances (that is, other then the ones presently authorized by law); and another 2003 survey with the general public finds a rate of 73.7%.

Of course, a possible legalization of abortion goes hand in hand with a proper sexual education and efficient contraceptive means, which is probably not the case in Korea these days. I might come back to these points later in a different article.

As to who practices abortion, studies show that most are married women, and that the first reason that is given is failure of contraception in almost 60% of the cases. We can wonder how these figures are obtained given the sensitive nature of the subject…but since in Korea, the only persons supposed to have sex are married couples, such results might be unavoidable, even if the reality on the ground about sexual practices of the young population are probably different.

There’s one very important reason that leads Korean couples into having an abortion. This reason is the vital importance, still today, of having a son. Korean society is generally considered as being the one most influenced by Confucianism. To make a long story short (because once you start talking about Confucianism it’s hard to stop, and it’s not he aim of this post), a family lineage is transmitted through the eldest son (patrilineal descent), who will be in charge of practicing the ancestors’ rites (of his own family) when his father passes away.

So, to perpetuate both the family lineage and Confucian rites, a son is necessary. Women do not take part to them, only from afar, by preparing all the required food for them to take place. A family without a male descendant will be unable to take care of the well-being of the ancestors’ spirits (and, as a result, also of the livings’, because they can behave with evil intentions is not taken care of properly – which is an important source of work for shamans in Korea, so that they quiet down unpleased spirits), and runs the risk to see its branch die away. This would be an unbearable situation for many Koreans, because the family lineage is almost a sacred concept, and at the origin of proud or shame (illustrious ancestor = proud; bad ancestor = shame)

As a consequence, we can logically expect some influence on the number of abortions regarding female foetuses. And we do observer this directly by having a look at the number of annual births over time, and particularly when looking at the proportion of male and female births. For the first babies born in a couple, we observe the following evolution: in 1981, there were 107.1 baby boys for 100 girls, but if we look at the fourth child this figure rises to 112.9; ten years later, in 1990, the rate for the first child is 116.5 and 209.5 for the fourth child, which indicates about twice as many boys as girls for the fourth child. This rate has fallen since, but is always in favor of baby boys (in 1007, 106.2 for the first child, and 119.1 for the fourth).

In other words, since such an imbalance cannot statistically exist in nature, its origin is to be found in the abortion of female fetuses. We should note that gynecologists obstetricians are still forbidden nowadays to let know the sex of the baby to the parents, because of the higher risk of abortion when the foetus is female. That’s in theory, because it’s similar to what can be seen for abortion practices, on the ground everyone (the medics) behaves more or less as they please. It goes without saying that the high abortion rate in Korea is not the preferred topic of Korean politicians, and that it’s somehow taboo. This is not a very good sign for those who hope for a decline in the number of abortions.
Of course, such a decline has first to go through better sexual education and better psychological and material conditions when it comes to contraceptive techniques and practices. But it probably also has to go through changes in gender relationships and in a different vision of everything that has to do with sex, a traditionally taboo topic in Korea. I should come back to this topic at a later date, in particular contraception and sexual education.

Those who want to have an abortion will always manage to have it done, be it in good or bad conditions. Criminalizing abortion not only fails to reach its objective (we can see this with the case of Korea), a decline in the number of abortions, but also implies an excessive feeling of guilt from the part of the often distressed mother, and possible negative consequences for her health during such a procedure.
All societies that legalized abortion never intended to incite women to abort, but to make this experience less painful, physically and psychologically, and to officialize practices widespread among the public. When might Korea make it legal? Since everything goes fast in Korea, you never know, but in any case, not with the present government, who has other fishes to fry and is very unlikely to go against its own electors.


Ciska said...

Definitely another interesting topic here in Korea!
I had been wondering when you would wake up from your marmot sleep ;-)

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