By Bora Chung
Not too long ago, South Korea used to have government-sanctioned “abortion buses” running in the countryside. In rural areas with no ready access to abortion clinics, they would provide women with the required support to interrupt a pregnancy.
It was during the 1960s and 1970s, when abortion was considered a normal way of family planning, at a time when the government was trying very hard to control population growth.
Since the ban on abortion was legally established in 1953 in South Korea, the exception clauses on diseases and disabilities have worked as a loophole. In the 1980s, it was common practice to terminate a pregnancy if the fetus turned out to be female. It was and still is a male-oriented society. The would-be grandparents usually wanted a grandson and the young mother-to-be could not always stand the pressure from the entire family.
Fast forward to the 2000s, Korea is now facing a demographic cliff. Thanks to the government policy, the population itself began to decrease during the 1960s and the 1970s. Also, because of sex-selective abortion impositions during the 1980s, there were simply not enough women left to give birth when the glorious new century began.
Now, the South Korean government wants women to have children, many children, as many as possible. And they suddenly remembered: yes, there’s a ban on abortion in South Korea! They can force women to give birth whether the women want it or not!
Abortion in South Korea is equated to sexual abuse
The Ministry of Health and Welfare newly revised Medical Act, lists surgical abortions as an unethical medical practice. It now goes along with practices such as sexual abuse, using unauthorized medicine, reusing single-use devices and ghost surgery (in which one doctor substitutes for another, without the patient’s knowledge).
As usual, the penal code makes no reference to the man responsible for impregnating the woman. It only punishes the bearer of the fetus and the person responsible for performing the abortion – usually her doctor.
Now, healthcare professionals are getting more and more reluctant to support women. In such a controlled environment, it has become extremely difficult to find adequate means to safely terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
Article 269 of the Penal Code still has that same loophole, but there is a catch: the pregnant woman must have her spouse’s (or the person who impregnated the woman) agreement in order to terminate her pregnancy.
What happens to the guy who impregnates the woman in the first place? The law doesn’t say anything about him: note that the name of the law itself doesn’t mention the father anywhere, almost as if women were getting pregnant all on their own.
Getting an abortion in South Korea: the horror story script
South Korean men do actually report their girlfriends who have had abortions without their permission. Basically, any guy can ruin a woman’s life by getting her pregnant and refusing to agree on the abortion. If the woman still gets the abortion without his consent, the guy can report her to the police and not face any consequences.
What happens if a woman is raped and becomes pregnant as a consequence? By law, she can have an abortion. However, in order to access a legal abortion, she has to prove that it was rape. Police investigations and lawsuits can take years. Even if the violated woman is extremely lucky to get her case declared as rape, by the time she has the court order it would be too late. Her right to a safe and timely choice would have already been compromised.
You can see that Article 269 of the South Korean Penal Code exists primarily to make sure that men have control over women and their bodies. It also exists to punish any woman who dares to make her own decisions.
What if she has a mental disorder, or a physical disability? In this case, for “eugenical” reasons, she is encouraged to have an abortion. This relates to human rights issues. Because of “eugenics”, she is not allowed to have children at all, even if she wanted to. Yes – this disgusting word is proudly included in the Mother and Child Health Law.
South Korean women and girls have experienced some horror stories. Women seeking to terminate their pregnancy go from one OBGYN clinic to another, because doctors all refuse to support her until it’s too late.
A woman with a serious medical condition finds out that she’s pregnant and, in order to prove that her condition is serious enough to qualify for a legal abortion, she stops taking medication. As a result, she has a seizure and because of the seizure she has a miscarriage.
If by some miracle she survives the seizure and the miscarriage, then her boyfriend and his parents barge into the hospital, thinking that she must have had an illegal abortion without the boyfriend’s consent. While the woman is still recovering from her ordeal, the boyfriend and his parents are ready to report her to the police and so on and so forth.
We resist: the ban on abortion is being contested
In 2012, the Constitutional Court considered whether Article 269 of the Penal Code was against the Constitution of the Republic of Korea. At that time, two out of ten judges had finished their term. The new judges had not been sworn in, and the remaining eight judges were divided in 4 against 4. The ban on abortion was ruled not unconstitutional because the judges couldn’t really make up their minds.
Feminist organizations filed another lawsuit with the Constitutional Court. The Ministry of Law made a statement saying that it is “irresponsible of women to enjoy the pleasure and seek to escape the consequences.” Meaning that if a woman has sex, she has to get pregnant and pop a baby; otherwise she’s a slut. Yes, the Ministry of Law of the Republic of Korea actually said that.
Feminist groups and many angry women protested and the Ministry of Law was forced to retract the problematic statement. But, the Constitutional Court dragged on. In order to avoid a tie like last time, they decided to postpone the final ruling until September, 2018 when all the old judges would have finished their term and the new judges would have been sworn in, but guess what? Nothing happened.
In the meantime, the Ministry of Health suddenly declared abortion as “an unethical medical practice,” threatening to suspend the doctor’s medical license for one month if they performed any abortions. The South Korean OBGYN Association heard it and has already declared that they would not perform abortions under any circumstances. Now, not even the male spouse’s permission is enough. There won’t be any abortions.
With the Ministry of Law, the Ministry of Health and the scared OBGYN doctors, one cannot help but think that the entire governmental structure is trying really hard to suppress women and to violate women’s rights to their own bodies and their own lives.
South Korean women are protesting. Since the Candlelight Protests from 2016 and 2017 and the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, South Koreans have learned one thing: that protests are effective. Therefore, we protest.
On August, over 2,500 of us took over the streets of downtown Seoul against abortion punishments. We stood before the government to raise awareness about the 125 South Korean women who will undergo an illegal abortion every hour. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but we do know that we will continue to fight no matter what.