SEOUL – South Korea’s recent decision to declare the ban on abortion as unconstitutional has opened the door to the legalization of a medical procedure that, despite the ruling, continues to involve an important and traumatizing social stigma for South Korean women.
The country’s constitutional court on April 11 ruled that the 1953 law that prohibited abortion under almost any circumstances – except in the cases of incest, rape, hereditary diseases or risk to mother’s health – violated South Korean citizens’ fundamental right to decide.
The ruling compelled parliament to amend the law before 2021 to allow abortions in the early stages of pregnancy.
The reform, once in force, would effectively decriminalize abortion. Those women undergoing voluntary abortions, as well as the doctors involved, would no longer be penalized with one and two years of prison, respectively.
Hundreds of South Korean men and women on both sides of the debate awaited the verdict outside the courthouse, showing the division that the issue generates – some 58 percent of respondents were in favor of decriminalization and a little over 30 percent were against the decision, according to recent surveys – in a country where Confucian rigidity had until recently impeded even public discussion on a taboo subject.
Christian groups – around a third of South Koreans are Protestants or Catholics – confronted pro-choice activists and urged the court not to legalize something which they believe to be “murder.”
“Since 2010, many women have fought to change this law by taking to the streets and sharing their experiences without worrying about the reprobative eyes and the stigma that it brings,” Na Young, an activist at Joint Action for Reproductive Justice told EFE during an earlier event to celebrate the verdict.
The year 2018 was a key moment in the path towards decriminalization, since that is when an anti-abortion doctors’ group, taking advantage of the declining birth rate, began denouncing the number of clandestine abortions taking place in the country. (According to government estimates from 2005, some 340,000 abortions were being performed every year nationwide).
Paradoxically, the anti-abortion movement brought an issue that had remained in the shadows to the limelight – in fact, the law was applied rarely and very few women and doctors were punished – and ended up making it possible to challenge the law’s constitutionality.
But Na Young said that abortion was still too often a taboo subject: “Many women refuse to give interviews because they feel like they lack the backing of the rest of society, although this has begun to change with the constitutional court’s verdict.”
The estimates show that the number of voluntary abortions every year in the country has gradually declined – there were some 50,000 in 2017 – likely because of improvements in sex education, a drop in the number of women of childbearing age and a better access pregnancy-ending methods with the help of abortifacient pills in the black market.
A woman who said she had been directly involved with women who have undergone abortions and do not want to speak about it to avoid reliving a painful memory told EFE that “abortion in South Korea is as easy as going to a gynecological clinic.”
The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, added that the procedure, which costs some $5,000 – since the doctors’ campaign in 2010, the price has increased tenfold – is always paid for in cash and involved dilation and curettage.
The person performing the procedure usually scrapes the uterus’ walls to terminate the pregnancy.
This technique has been abandoned in most countries, especially after the World Health Organization advised against its use.
The woman talked about “classic” cases such as college or school-aged students who lie to their parents with some excuse justifying their absence and recover from curettage at a motel over the weekend.
“Some are accompanied by partners or friends, but some do it all on their own,” she added.
There are also cases of married women also undergo abortions upon finding out that they are expecting girls due to the traditional preference of giving birth to male children who carry on the family name.
The ball is now in the court of politicians; though some fear that the Christian lobbies could influence the future amendment.