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Sunday, November 12, 2017

South Koreans Push for the Right to Choose

For several decades abortion has been a legal and important method of fertility control for women in China and Japan. Not so in South Korea, where abortion has been outlawed since 1953 except for cases of rape, severe health threat to the mother, or a severe fetal defect. This week's Economist reports on a new push in South Korea to legalize abortion. The interesting thing about this effort is that it became necessary because a few years ago a concerted effort emerged to enforce the restrictions on abortion.
[F]or a long time governments turned a blind eye to it, viewing it as simply another form of birth control. Doctors readily provided it. Many people did not even know that it was illegal to have one. To this day the government estimates that around 170,000 pregnancies are aborted every year.
But in 2010 a group called Pro-Life Doctors started reporting hospitals offering abortions to the police. Wealthy and politically influential religious groups began campaigning against the practice too. The president at the time, Lee Myung-bak, a devout Christian, vowed to prevent illegal abortions. He created a task force to ensure the law was enforced, presenting the move as a way to lift falling fertility rates. It did not work: in 2016 there were only 406,000 live births, the lowest number on record. It did lift prices though: during Mr Lee’s term, the cost of a furtive abortion reportedly rose tenfold.
Keep in mind that a relatively rapid drop in fertility has been one of the keys to South Korea's economic success. At the same time, the birth rate is only slightly below replacement level, and is higher than in either China or Japan. Thus, it is a bit of a stretch to suggest that penalizing abortions will make a huge difference in the birth rate. This is largely a humanitarian reproductive rights issue.
A recent survey found that only 36% of people want to keep abortion as a criminal offence, down from 53% in 2010. The constitutional court is due to rule soon on a challenge to the abortion law, on the grounds that it is an unwarranted infringement of women’s personal liberty. In 2012 the court voted narrowly to uphold it, but several more liberal judges have joined since then.
To the extent that religion might play a role in the abortion debate, it is interesting to note that South Korea is a country in which there is no religious majority. A Pew Research report shows that people with no religious affiliation are the largest single group (46%), followed by Christians (29%) and Buddhists (23%). The current President, Moon Jae-In is a Roman Catholic. 

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