How South Korea’s Anti-Abortion Law Affects Girls
"I thought that I might have to do it alone, and possibly even go to Japan for the surgery, since it’s illegal and expensive in Korea.” Katie* was an American university student studying in Korea when she found out she was pregnant. Stuck in a foreign country, unsure of what to do and with no family to ask for help, she contacted her ex-boyfriend.
"I woke up in a dark room, got even more scared, and kept asking for my ex. I had to beg for the man that I hated, who'd brought me to a hospital that lacked people who could explain anything to me, despite my objections. I was scared and didn't know what was going on." Unfortunately, she isn't the only one with a story like this.
She is only one of 340,000, and part of the 26.4% of pregnant women who sought out abortions in the lawfully pro life country in 2005--nearly double the rate of America. Many argue that real rates are even higher, as most cases go unreported due to the fear of prosecution. In 1953, abortion was outlawed in Korea. In 1973, the law was tweaked to exempt women with hereditary diseases, or in cases of rape or incest, before 24 weeks. Anyone caught inducing miscarriage or medical professionals caught performing the surgery would be penalized in the form of large fines or imprisonment.
For many years following, the government covered their eyes and ears to the abortions happening behind their back. However, this past year, the government implemented plans to set even stricter laws and more severe penalties. They are finally cracking down, albeit the protests and outcries from women and doctors all throughout the country are loud and clear; women deserve a right to choose, and access to safe and consistent abortions.
Despite the laws, Korea has one of the world's highest abortion rates. Though socially taboo and clearly condemned by law, it's common practice. Combined with Korea's somewhat conservative nature and social norms (such as no intimacy before marriage), many often request secret abortions. Some doctors even "hint" at abortion as an option for unmarried women who are pregnant. As one mother-to-be told me, "I'm currently expecting my first child. It was interesting to be asked if I would 'birth the baby.’ I was given the 'code' for the option to abort, as I wasn't married yet." No matter how much or how little the government tries to enforce it, the law has little influence on women's and doctors' final decisions.
While I spoke to many different women, everyone had a vastly different experience. Some endured very minimal pain (both mental and physical), and others had horror stories to tell.
That's the scariest part of all: because clinics and hospitals will still perform them under-the-table for a hefty price, it's accessible. And at the same time, it’s unregulated and risky. But to women who make the difficult decision, it seems to be the only option available. As if the whole idea of an abortion weren’t stressful enough, many faced racism, sexism, and were offered little to no comfort. Emily*, an expat who had conceived as a result of rape, said her doctor forced her to get permission from the father before he would agree to perform the procedure. "I had to get a written statement from the man who drugged and raped me. It was humiliating, to say the least." The one small positive takeaway from the bleak situation: female nurses often offered comfort and commiseration. If nothing else, the law seems to be banding women together through protests, as well as hand-holding and tear-wiping while on the table.
Talks of similar regulations and laws coming to the states, as implemented by president-elect Donald Trump, have re-sparked conversation and controversy between the expat communities and women in Korea. Women are protesting, sharing their stories, and providing each other with support. The warning from this strictly pro-life country is clear: whether abortions are outlawed or not, many women will not (or cannot) stop having the surgery.
Everyone hangs onto one question: if for whatever reason, a woman decides she can't or doesn't want to bear a child in a country that limits her choices to only two (one of which being potentially unsafe, the other being anti-choice, and either one bound to change her life forever), what does she do?
*Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.
By Soo Hyun, 17