The South Korea Ministry of Health estimates that doctors perform 350,000 abortions per year in the country, while delivering only 450,000 babies per year. That means 43.7 percent of all pregnancies are aborted. From those numbers, who would have guessed that abortion has been technically illegal in Korea for decades?
Beginning in the 1970s, when the myth of the “population bomb” was being widely promulgated as truth, Korean officials began advocating smaller families in order to avoid a population explosion that would threaten the economic stability of the country. The push for reduced fertility rates included blatantly ignoring the legal ban on the abortion. The new policy was overwhelmingly successful—fertility dropped to 1.19 births per woman and so many abortions are currently performed in South Korea that it has been tagged “the Republic of Abortion.”
Officials finally reversed their position on population growth a decade ago when they recognized the need for a younger generation to support the economy and care for the elderly. However, they have had much more difficulty encouraging fertility than they had discouraging it.
The government is now developing proposals for a new program, entitled “Increase Koreans,” designed to encourage families to have at least three children. One of the proposals would provide the third child of a family with a bevy of economic advantages, including favor in university entrance exams and employment and financial support for secondary and undergraduate education.
With this new shift in attitude from the government, it appears that cultural attitudes towards abortion in South Korea begin to change. According to the Los Angeles Times, abortion is almost universally accepted without controversy and most religious and women’s groups remain silent on the issue. One doctor, however, has begun a new movement that has started debate on this long ignored issued.
For almost twenty years, Shim Sang-duk performed about one abortion a day. “Over time, I became emotionless,” Shim said. “I came to see the results of my work as just a chunk of blood. During the operation, I felt the same as though I was treating scars or curing diseases.”
Two months ago, Shim realized he no longer could conscience performing abortions and began an activist group of physicians who now refuse to perform abortions and aim at enforcing the long dormant law. Shim’s campaign has garnered a wave of criticism, particularly from the Korean Assn. of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, but it has also forced the public and the government to discuss current unofficial policies toward abortion.
A new sign now hangs in the lobby of Shim’s clinic: “Abortions, which abandon the valuable life of a fetus, are the very misery for the nation and society as well as pregnant women, families and ob-gyn doctors.”
Despite the financial burden of refusing to perform abortions—previously about a quarter of his business—Shim refuses change his position. “I feel like a young doctor again,” he told the Los Angeles Times.