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South Korea Kicks Issue of Abortion Down the Road

Government Claims Research Needed, So Women’s Rights Must Wait

A woman holds a sign at a pro-choice rally at the Cheonggye Plaza in Seoul on August 31, 2010. © 2010 Left 21
Women in South Korea are demanding an immediate end to the country’s restrictive anti-abortion laws, but so far the government isn’t listening. President Moon Jae-In pledged in August his government would publicly respond to any petition posted to the government’s website that received more than 200,000 signatures within one month. In late October, a petition calling for legalization of abortion passed that threshold.

On November 26, the government responded by buying time.

In a 10-minute video, Cho Kuk, the president’s senior secretary on civil affairs, provided the government’s response to what he termed a “sensitive” issue. First, he discussed the current context of abortion in South Korea, which includes a highly restrictive law, widespread availability of illegal abortion services, and a trickle of prosecutions for women and girls who seek abortion outside the law, as well as the healthcare providers who dare to perform them. He also mentioned future legal reforms, referring to a constitutional challenge to the country’s abortion laws by a doctor facing prosecution for performing an abortion. The case is expected to be heard in 2018.

Cho also focused his response on the lack of recent data about abortions in South Korea, promising the government will collect new data in 2018. This smacks of delaying tactics – plenty of information is already perfectly clear. In South Korea, women may only legally obtain an abortion in highly restricted circumstances such as rape or incest, hereditary disease, or risk to the mother. Both women who seek abortions in other circumstances and healthcare workers who perform them face imprisonment and fines.

When governments restrict abortion, women still have abortions – they just have more dangerous ones. According to the United Nations, in 2011, the average unsafe abortion rate was more than four times greater in countries with restrictive abortion policies than in countries with liberal abortion policies.

Some would say that given how far behind South Korea is on many issues affecting women, having the government discussing abortion and pledging future steps is a positive sign. But every day of delay means more South Korean women being forced to risk their health to make reproductive choices that should be their right. Moon and his government still need to respond substantively to the hundreds of thousands of South Koreans who signed the petition.

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