Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Abortions in South Korea: Legality, Morality and Public Opinion

Here's the question:
I know that in the Korean age system, there is a year added because they count the time Koreans are in their mother's womb as 1 year (at least, this is what one of my Korean co-workers has told me). My question is, what do Koreans in general think of abortion? Can a woman get an abortion here? My thinking is that since they count the age from conception (plus a few months), abortion must seem more barbaric than in Canada.

You're generally right about the age thing. Many Koreans do start counting age at conception. Many other eastern Asian nations follow similar patterns. However, it has no effect on the morality or legality of abortion. The politically charged abortion debate in America and some other Western nations does not really exist in Korea. I've talked with students before who were genuinely confused as to why so much emotion surrounded the issue. That was a difficult one to answer without railing into the loons of American conservatism, so I deflected as well as I could. As much as I loathe dislike some aspects of American politics, I try not to give anymore ammunition to the world.

The abortion debate in Korea is not really centered around women's rights, nor is it debated as a privacy law. In fact, the morality of it is not usually brought into question. You will not hear arguments like "Hands off my body!" or "It's a woman's choice." You also will not hear people calling a doctor who performs an abortion "A Baby Killer." It simply does not arouse the kind of manufactured emotion as it does in the West (or at least America).

Koreans generally see abortion as an unfortunate means of birth control. No one in Korea likes abortion. It's messy and can be embarrassing, but typically you won't hear many "life starts at conception" arguments or people walking around shouting "murderers!" The reasons why Korean abort is just the same as in any country: something in their life was not conducive for raising a child.

In most cases, abortion is illegal in South Korea. (Of course, prostitution is too, but we all know how that goes.) Sean Hayes of the Korean Law Blog covers the legality of the issue in detail, so I'll leave that aspect of it to him. Since it is "illegal" to get an abortion in Korea, young women and couples must be going somewhere to get them done, right? Due to the illegal nature of abortion, the operations must be done secretly. There's no back-alley thing going on, but doctors often risk having their practice shut-down (or going to jail) in order to perform the pricey procedure. That risk means that they are going to jack up the price. In fact, I've heard that many doctors make the lions share of their income from abortion procedures.

You also must consider how contraception is viewed in Korea. We all know that Korea is a sexually conservative country (in public). This mentality has a direct affect on sexual behavior and, in particular, the practice of safe sex. Sure, you can find condoms at 711 and birth control pills at the pharmacy, but that does not mean the average Korean is using them. Stats do suggest that sales (and I would assume use) have been increasing over the past few years and that is good (although there is no way to confirm that). However, they appear to be increasing not because of disease, but more out of fear of having children in an economically volatile climate (or because of the North Korea threat).

Buying condoms or getting birth control pills can be embarrassing for people all over the world, but in Korea it is particularly so. For women, it's essentially an admission that they're having sex and for unmarried women, it's simply not worth it. Typically, women put the responsibility of contraceptive on men which of course drastically reduces the chances that protection will be used. It also should be noted that the increase in condom use is only occurring within the younger generation though. The older generation continually opts for other methods.

It is not at all unusual to meet a mother in her forties with three kids who has had an abortion. I have been surprised by the candidness of some of my older male and female students who openly share their abortion stories in class. I had one man in his fifties who told the class that he and his wife had three abortions when they were younger. He now wished he hadn't aborted them, but that's not the point. His admission was totally unprovoked and after telling his story, the rest of the class was unaffected. There were no scoffs or back-handed comments. They identified with his feelings of remorse, but there was no discussion of morality or legality. They simply understood the grief he felt for not having more children.

Luckily for Korea, teen pregnancy isn't a problem. In fact, its rate is the lowest among OECD nations. Is it that low because being pregnant as a teenager is tremendously shaming in Korea and carrying the baby to term is almost not an option or is that Korean teenagers are mostly so busy and sexually inactive that pregnancy is not even possible? Well, I'd say it's a little of both, but more the latter.

On top of that, many Koreans are shockingly naive when it comes to sex. Example: I have two very quiet 20 year old girls who are in one of my social issues classes. The class was talking about Korean films and one student brought up the new film "Thirst" (박쥐). Most of the students had seen it, including the two girls. Another student asked if they liked it, they said, "No. It was too erotic." The film is not that erotic and for a young twenty-something, it shouldn't be. But to these young Koreans, it was.

In short, age-counting in Korea typically begins at conception, in the minds of Koreans there is a very big disconnect between that date and the beginning of life. Koreans get abortions for the same reasons everyone does: health concerns or the timing is wrong. The main difference is that conservative politicians in Korea aren't turning it into a way of cashing in on votes. Getting an abortion here might be illegal, but it is being done in tons of clinics all across the nation. Is it more barbaric due to the age-counting system? Your call.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at asktheexpat@yahoo.com or leave a comment.


danb said...

In a country where an unmarried girl or woman having a child is almost unthinkable, there actually is a place that will support her making that choice: http://aeranwon.org

Unknown said...

Age doesn't begin at conception according to the Korean way!

Rather, Koreans count the number of years the child has lived in. So a child born on December 31st is 2 the next day (i.e. he has lived in 2 different years) while a child born on the January 1st doesn't turn 2 until the following year, when he has lived in 2 seperate years.

So you see, even though both babies in the example could have been conceived on the same day, it is their date of birth that determines thier age.

The 'age begins at conception' thing is mostly said by Korean Christans with an anti-abortion agenda.

The Expat said...

Matt, there's no need to be obnoxious. While age technically doesn't start at conception (because that leaves a few extra months unaccounted for), birth does equate to one year. The day a Korean child is born, he/she is one. If you ask Koreans why this is, most of the time you're going to hear the conception bit.

Unknown said...

Sorry, didn't mean to sound obnoxious!

It's just that I've heard that 'Korean age begins at conception' bit mostly from Korean Christians, whereas non-Christians all seem to know the actual way it works... Ostensibly, it looks like the Christians are distorting the facts about this about their culture to suit their religion.

I'm sure it wasn't your intention to perpetuate this myth. So, I don't mean to be trite, but perhaps you should edit your OP, as you say, "...age-counting technically begins at conception...", yet in your reply to me you state the exact opposite. "While age technically doesn't start at conception..."

Don't mean to sound anti-Christian, but I was raised Catholic (no birth control nor condoms in Africa etc.) so I know how Christianity can sometimes conflict with woman's rights. I strongly support a woman's right to choose, and I think this age-at-conception thing, linguistically, is anti-choice. Also, culturally, it's inaccurate.

The Expat said...

It really has very little to do with Christianity. I understand that many Korean Christians might try to infuse this into the debate, but ask a normal old non-Christian man or women and they will say the same thing.

Reactions to Korean opinion that are acquired through English are not always accurate. Koreans with solid English skills have been exposed to much more than the average Korean.

"whereas non-Christians all seem to know the actual way it works..."

This quote says just that. I'm glad that you and some other Koreans know the "actual way it works", but this is not a debate about when life begins. This is simply me relaying what the average Korean is thinking. Most Koreans do not think about the age-at-conception debate, so they accept popular mythology which, judging by the wide range of people who accept it, has nothing to do with Christian indoctrination.

Of course, I don't buy into the conception debate, nor do I buy into much of the debate surrounding either side of the abortion issue. Both sides constantly make bad arguments, but again, this is not the post for that.

I do appreciate your feedback though and I changed the word "technically". Thanks...

Yang Long Home said...

I taught over 32,000 hours of English in Daejeon, South Korea, from 1996 to April of this year, 2011. I taught in public schools, three universities (Mokwon, Hannam, and Eulji Medical School), and on the private market. Abortion was a hot topic the whole time I was there. It and evolution were the two most popular debate topics among my students.

Unknown said...

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