A few years ago, I found myself in the middle of the Mekong River headed for the remote village of Ban Pak Nguey in Northern Laos. For seven hours, I meandered on a long wooden boat decked with chairs from old minivans, slipping deeper into a rugged landscape softened by silky waters and the envelopment of a milky red smog—the byproduct of slashing and burning the fields that time of year. Meanwhile, fishermen in long canoes with hand-held motors propelled effortlessly past our slow-moving mass.
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.
The South Asia Initiative at UC San Diego hosts a series of interdisciplinary events to promote discussion and exchange on South Asia. On Thursday February 14th, they invited Reetika Khera, associate professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Management, along with UC San Diego’s own Karthik Muralidharan, Tata Chancellor’s professor of economics, to discuss and debate India’s new “Aadhaar” system.
“Aadhaar”–meaning “foundation” in Hindi–represents the Indian government’s attempt to usher in as many of its citizens into the digital age as possible through the use of biometric IDs (fingerprints, retina scans, etc.) to connect various social services to a citizen’s own genetic imprint. First proposed in 2009, citizens were initially not required to obtain an Aadhaar identification. However, after a continuous push from the government and by linking it to numerous services such as bank accounts, pensions, and even free school-meals, over 1.1 billion people have now been registered, making this one of the most ambitious government data collection programs in the world. To advocates of Aadhaar, the new system is hailed as a step towards modernizing India, formalizing the economy, and leaping over illiteracy constraints of many indian citizens in need of welfare. To skeptics, it may be viewed as a huge breach of privacy. On top of these concerns for privacy, arguments against it point towards numerous implementation challenges. Professor Khera voiced some of these concerns, while professor Muralidharan–who played a key role in the early trial runs of Aadhaar–took a more cautiously optimistic stance during their discussion.
In her initial statement, Professor Khera acknowledges the common criticism of privacy issues, but focuses instead mainly on its implementation. She reasons that if Aadhaar is not able to serve its advertised purpose or audience, this massive change is being pushed for naught. First, it fails to prevent economic leakage properly, and thus does not serve its most in-need constituency. Examples she mentions include quantity fraud, wherein a citizen on welfare–who signs off on purchasing subsidized goods such as groceries–likely do not receive the full amount of goods they purchased. This issue is particularly prominent for rural and disempowered populations such as village women, and Aadhaar does nothing to combat it. Additionally, she mentions Aadhaar’s technical failures and the consequences of these failings. Many manual laborers and senior citizens have had their fingerprints faded away over time, and even a simple issue such as this has prevented many in poverty from receiving their welfare rations. Thus, based on where Aadhaar and its capabilities currently stand and the lack of socially appropriate technologies to fix these issues, Khera reasons that the system is doing more harm than good.
Professor Muralidharan did agree with many of Khera’s proposed flaws but aimed to provide more context and empirical evidence in various sectors for a more holistic view of Aadhaar’s impact. He does so by going deeper into specific regions of India where Aadhaar was implemented and then measuring how effective specific programs were in each region. The adoption of a more basic biometric smartcard system in the state of Andhra Pradesh resulted in a much more efficient and less corrupted payment experience, which was publicly very popular without needing additional government expenditure. Conversely, once economic leakage was reduced in a lower-capacity state like Jharkhand, so too was government spending reduced, demonstrating policies that prioritize fiscal savings over welfare. The sheer scale coupled with the variety of situations in each state present a massive challenge in implementation. This contrast demonstrates the failures in implementation, rather than the system itself. Muralidharan concludes that rejecting the technology itself would be counterproductive. Instead, he highlights the importance of democratic vigilance grassroots measurements to address cases like these, where vulnerable groups are not receiving the protections they need.
Both Khera and Muralidharan spoke from positions of deep investment in India, and understood the reality of such a large nation with scarce resources, and trying to distribute them as judiciously as possible. When asked what he thought the audience’s major takeaways from the discussion should be, Muralidharan again reflected on the role of advocacy in policy making. “The activists are able to see the groundlevel realities that politicians and academia are divorced from,” though he admits, “I do trust activists with diagnosis, but not with solutions.” He believes real long term solutions require valuable data points reflected in sensitive policy processes, echoing a sentiment that the only way to achieve these long term reforms for the public is an organized effort from the grassroots advocates, dedicated researchers, and centralized policy makers.