By Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D.
(NEW YORK – C-FAM) South Korea’s highest court upheld that country’s 59-year abortion ban last week, amidst a surge of pro-life activism led by former abortionists. On Wednesday the government reversed a decision that would have lifted the prescription requirement for emergency contraception.
The Associated Press’ brief report on the court ruling, picked up by several major media outlets, omitted mention the pro-life influence in South Korea, pointing only to government concern over Korea’s low birthrate.
What dramatically changed dynamics in Korea was that the government, which had for decades encouraged doctors to perform abortion as a means of population control to foster economic growth, expressed official support for a pro-life doctor’s group. Because of that, “the political terrain of abortion politics in South Korea is changing drastically,” researcher Young-Gyung Paik said.
Young-Gyung’s 2012 paper showed that pro-life activism, long marginalized as “religiously driven,” suddenly gained prominence: “It was only after the formation of the group of doctors called ‘Pro-life Doctors’ in 2009 that the contentious issue of abortion started to gain public attention in South Korea.” “In [the doctors’] opinion, the South Korea’s low fertility rate has originated from its high abortion rate, which, in turn, was the result of the immoral and profit-oriented conducts of Korean medical doctors,” Young-Gyung found.
Whereas Korean media painted the pro-life activism as a “war between doctors,” Young-Gyung’s extensive interviews with both sides found it was fostered by the development of neo-natal medical technologies, decreased interest in embryonic stem cell research, the rise of disability activism, as well as concern about depopulation.
According to a paper by the Pro-life Doctor’s Association, the winners from the court’s decision are Korea’s women. “Most abortions used to be easily performed because doctors or women undergoing abortions were not prosecuted even though abortion was illegal,” the paper said. Even after the country had become economically successful, the “trend of encouraging abortion was prevalent in our society and as a result, women used to be compelled by social pressure to undergo abortion.”
“I bought into the government’s argument that it was OK to do this,” Shim Sang-duk told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. The doctor received death threats and took a significant pay cut after abandoning the practice of abortion. “[I thought] it was good for the country. It boosted the economy,” said Shim, who founded the Korean Gynecological Physicians’ Association to encourage other doctors to stop performing abortions and call on the government to enforce the law’s penalties.
An eight-judge panel needed six votes in to declare the law unconstitutional but only got four, which has spurred hot debate in the Korean media, a spokesman for the doctor’s association told the Friday Fax. An opinion piece in The Korea Times Thursday criticized the government on its decision not to allow emergency contraception to be sold over the counter as bowing to “doctors and religious groups.”
In 2010 a midwife who helped perform an abortion at 6 weeks gestation went on trial and then challenged the law’s constitutionality, especially the law’s maximum two-year jail term for medical practitioners. The constitutional court argued that a lighter punishment would only make abortion more rampant, Radio Australia reported.
Abortion has been illegal in South Korea with exceptions for rape, incest or severe genetic disorders since 1953, but the law has been routinely flouted.
Kwak Seung-jun, chairman of the Presidential Council for Future & Vision, told reporters in 2010: “There are few people who realize abortion is illegal. We must work to create a mood where abortion is discouraged.”
Susan Yoshihara is Senior Vice President for Research at the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a New York and Washington DC-based research institute (http://www.c-fam.org/). Her article was first appeared in the Friday Fax, an internet report published weekly by C-FAM.