by Pankhuri Prasad
Abortion rights continue to garner widespread attention in the United States and around the world, with restrictions on abortion and the reproductive rights of women constantly in flux. In May 2018, Ireland was acclaimed when it passed a referendum that struck down the eighth amendment of its constitution, which previously placed the life of a fetus and the life of a woman at equal importance. Most recently, in April 2019, South Korea followed suit by moving towards more progressive legal options for abortion.
Abortion had been legally restricted under South Korean criminal law since 1953. Certain exceptions were granted to allow abortion in the case of rape, incest, or serious threat to the mental or physical health of the expectant mother. However, even in these exceptional cases, the procedure required consent of the spouse. Otherwise, a woman would face up to one year in prison or a fine of up to 2 million won for an illegal abortion (approximately $1,750). A case was brought to the court in 2018 by a doctor who was facing prosecution for performing nearly 70 abortions. Medical professionals, if prosecuted for performing the procedure, may be sentenced for up to two years in prison under the current law. The Constitutional Court reviewed the law in 2012, but the ban was upheld since the court was split evenly. In a landmark victory for human rights in April of 2019, South Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled the 1953 law was unconstitutional. The verdict gives the Korean Parliament until the end of 2020 to revise the law, after which it will become null and void.
In South Korea, the “pro-choice”—or pro-abortion—activism gained momentum in 2017 when 230,000 people signed an online petition to strike down the ban on abortions. In the months leading up to the court decision, rhetoric and protests from both sides intensified. On March 30, 2019, more than a thousand women took to the streets to protest the ban on abortion. Activists have argued that the government has long viewed women simply as “baby-producing machines.” In the 1970s and 1980s, the government was faced with the challenge of curbing the unsustainable population growth. During this time, the government simply ignored illegal abortions, as it pushed for only one child per household. In recent years, the government has grown worried about the falling birthrate—one of the lowest in the world—and has become more stringent about restricting abortions. As a consequence, many women in South Korea feel that their reproductive freedoms have been taken away from them.
Access to safe abortion services should transcend national borders because it directly violates women’s right to health. When abortion is illegal and cannot be conducted safely, it forces women to carry out unwanted pregnancies, face serious threats to their health, or even risk death. According to Human Rights Watch, approximately 13 percent of maternal deaths worldwide are attributable to unsafe abortion—between 68,000 and 78,000 deaths annually. In fact, unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide and lead to an additional five million largely preventable disabilities, according to the WHO.This is easily preventable by legalizing abortion. Banning abortion does not end abortions; rather, it drives it underground and forces women to seek illicit and unsafe procedures. This has been the case in South Korea where, despite the ban, abortions are rampant. Collecting accurate data regarding abortions in Korea is extremely challenging as government statistics have relied on calculating national health insurance claims and doctors who perform abortions do not report their procedures. As a result, most estimates about Korean abortion rates likely undercut the actual rate. Data based on surveys of various medical providers put the estimated number of abortions in 2005 at 342,433. The Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimated that approximately 3,000 abortions occurred daily in 2017, which also contradicts other figures reported by national agencies.
Although the court’s ruling is welcomed by women’s rights activists, concerns about the stigma surrounding abortions persist. Many Koreans see abortion as immoral and for “naughty” girls. The Catholic Church in Seoul has expressed regret over the court’s ruling and urged people to choose “life over death.” The discussion on reproductive freedoms cannot end at increasing access to abortions, but must also address society’s prevailing attitudes on reproduction. In most societies and cultures, the burden of preventing unwanted pregnancies is left to the woman.
A study conducted by the UN in 2015, Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide, shows that across the world contraceptive methods such as female sterilization and IUD’s make up the majority while male sterilization and male condoms make up only a small fraction of total contraceptive usage. Female surgical sterilization methods can be much more complicated and dangerous procedures than male sterilization, yet they are hardly done. This is only a symptom of a larger trend. Similarly, the most recent effort in 2016 to create a male birth contraceptive pill was stopped before completion since the side effects on the health of the participants were deemed too severe. It can be argued that the effects experienced by men—including acne, mood disorders, and raised libido—are relatively minor compared to those suffered by women on the pill, which include anxiety, weight gain, nausea, headaches, reduced libido, and blood clots. Additionally, restricting abortion unfairly raises the stakes for women. This can be worse in countries such as South Korea where there have been multiple cases of husbands and boyfriends using women’s secret abortions to blackmail them to extort large sums of money.
Society and culture do not change overnight, and women who seek abortions will undoubtedly continue to face strong stigmas despite the newly-won legality. This is the reality for many women across the world. However, legalizing abortion guarantees—at the very least—safer and affordable access to procedures. Still, there are further steps needed to ensure positive change.. If the Korean government is committed to this issue, it must build infrastructure to support women who suffer from serious physical and mental consequences after the procedure.