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BY STEVE WEATHERBE, REGISTER CORRESPONDENT
A Catholic-raised obstetrician and several Catholic ministers in the South Korean government are leading a campaign to enforce the country’s abortion law.
The law is flouted by the medical profession, which some estimate does more than a million abortions a year.
Father Hugo Park, head of the Archdiocese of Seoul’s pro-life ministry, told the Register that both the country’s justice minister, Kim Kyung-Han, and its health minister, Jae-Hee Jeon, are devout Catholics from whom he expects real action on abortion.
The latter, at a conference on the country’s future last fall, promised to enforce the law, which permits abortion only in cases of incest, rape, genetic diseases and endangerment of the mother’s life.
The government’s interest is in promoting population growth, said Father Park, “but the Catholic Church sees this as a moral issue.”
Catholics, Protestants and Buddhists are all rallying behind an unlikely new movement in the anti-abortion cause: Gynob, a group of 680 gynecologists and obstetricians who came out last fall against abortions.
Their founder, Dr. Anna Choi, partner in the Ion Women’s Clinic in Seoul, told the Register that “the income from performing abortions has become a fundamental part of the practice of obstetrics and gynecology so that, now, one can’t run a clinic without performing abortions.”
“On a personal level, this is a tragic situation and a serious problem for our society,” she said. “Not seeing the fetus as a living being promotes a culture of contempt for life. The government and the public have become indifferent to these illegal procedures. This has the disastrous result of Korea having the lowest birthrate in the world.”
Indeed, the government has responded to recommendations from its Presidential Council for Future and Vision as well as from Gynob by promising enforcement of the abortion law.
It has also started a media campaign called “Increase Koreans,” implying abortion is unpatriotic, and has raised subsidies for unwed mothers.
“The Catholic Church supports all this,” said Father Park, adding, “We were taken by surprise by the doctors.”
Korea is far from alone in struggling with underpopulation. Some countries have taken proactive steps to encourage women to give birth. While China still enforces its one-child-per-family law, neighboring Russia is offering $9,000 to mothers with a single child to have a second. Portugal may punish childless couples with high pension payments while rewarding those with two or more children with reductions.
Father Tom Euteneuer, president of Human Life International, the pro-life group based in Virginia, says the abortion rates, legal or otherwise, are very high across Asia, while fertility rates there have plunged.
“Asia is a very pagan place,” he said. “While the law of God is written in the human heart everywhere, only Christians usually have the courage to speak up. Even for Christians and Catholics it is very hard to stand up to professional pressures.”
Father Euteneuer said South Korea stood 214th out of 222 countries in the world in terms of its fertility rate. He held little hope for any government policies being able to turn that around. “The results in other countries have been minimal at best. What will stop it is the courage of doctors such as Dr. Choi.”
In South Korea, Gynob has held widely publicized events where its members publicly apologized for their abortions and urged doctors to refuse to do any illegal abortions. The group is now gathering a 1-million signature petition to the government.
Behind all this is Choi, who was a practicing Catholic well into adulthood but now says she has no religion. Like other ob-gyns in South Korea, when she opened her practice, she said, “I found I didn’t think I could successfully run it without doing abortions. I didn’t have enough conviction to be the only person not performing abortions when everyone else was doing them.”
The medical profession blames the government for giving abortion a crucial economic role by keeping fees too low. And since abortions are illegal in most cases, doctors do not report them when they cross the line; therefore, they can charge a market rate — about $430.
OB-GYN clinics are so reliant on abortions that many do not even do live births. One South Korean obstetrician was reported to have closed her practice recently, having found she couldn’t make ends meet after two years of refusing to do illegal abortions.
“Doctors can earn hundreds of dollars, mostly in cash,” she told The Korean Times, “in one or two hours by conducting an illegal abortion, while other, legal treatments for pregnant women take longer but are less profitable.”
Father Park says the problem is not only the government fee structure. “Many women want only one child. And many young people are not getting married and do not want children at all. There is no business for obstetricians.”
At 1.2 children per woman, South Korea’s birth rate is among the world’s lowest and far below the 2.1 level necessary to sustain its population.
As for abortions, the Health and Welfare Ministry admits that almost 350,000 abortions are done each year, accounting for 43% of all pregnancies.
But parliamentarian Chang Yoon Seok has claimed that five times that number of abortions are done without being reported.
Essentially, the government has turned a blind eye since the 1970s because of its concern for overpopulation.
Choi did 20 abortions a month for six years but stopped when she realized “it conflicted with my duties as a doctor. On the one hand I was treating infertile patients, and on the other, killing healthy fetuses. It was difficult to face myself.”
Rally This Spring
Choi found other doctors who agreed with her, and they began discussions. These bore fruit last October, when the group gathered at a medical conference center and made a declaration against abortion.
Gynob formed a second group for doctors in other specialties and linked up with religious opponents of abortion, such as the Catholic Church. Father Park became a consultant to the group.
South Korea’s population of 48 million is about 11% Catholic.
Gynob also put out a 10-point plan for the government, calling for subsidies for unwed mothers.
Meanwhile, the South Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has damned Gynob with faint praise. “We credit them for bringing a widespread but hushed-up social anomaly to the surface. But we can’t go along with their radical tactics,” spokesman Dr. Eun Jung told The New York Times.
Jung warned that if the abortion law were enforced, women would simply go to another country to secure the operation or get it from nonmedical practitioners and risk their health.
Gynob is now organizing its own media campaign and planning a mass rally in Seoul in the spring. It will call on the government to not only enforce the existing law, but toughen it, eliminating some of the current legal justifications for abortion.
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.