Abortion in South Korea

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The practice of abortion, the removal of an embryo or fetus from the uterus in order to end a pregnancy [1], has been a significant issue that is discussed differently over various religious groups, social organizations, gender groups, and cultural groups. Different groups have different social norms and social goals that they aim at, thus they have different opinions and perspectives toward abortion. Within South Korea, there exists a number of different organizations and abortion has been rising to be a significant social issue. This Wiki Collaboration discusses the religious background of South Korea, sexual education, and different view toward abortion for the better understanding of abortion in South Korea.

Abortion Law

Abortion Law in South Korea is set and legislated by the Mother and Child Health Law. Abortion is partially allowed under specific conditions and restrictions.

Section 4

 1. When the parents perform abortion by using any kind of chemicals/medication, they will be sentenced to a penal servitude for one year or less, or penalty of 2 million won (about $200,000 US) 
 2. Anyone who operated or gave help for abortion will be subjected to the same sentence above.
4.270(Abortion under Doctor's agreement, disagreement) 
 1. Any doctors who operated or gave help for abortion will be subjected to a penal servitude for two years or less.

Section 14

Section 14(Restrictions on Induced Abortion) 
 1. A doctor may agree on or operation induced abortion to one or a spouse of one only in case of following 
  *  When mother or father is suffering from one of the Presidential-Decree-approved mental or eugenic disability or genetic disease
  *  When mother or father is suffering from Presidential-Decree-approved infectious diseases
  *  When pregnant by rape 
  *  When pregnant by a family member or a relative who cannot legally marry
  *  When pregnancy is seriously dangerous for mother's health
 2. For all cases above, if the spouse is missing, dead, or cannot sign on an agreement for tragic reasons, abortion can be processed only by mothers agreement. 
 3. For all cases above, when mother or spouse is unable to express one's own will, abortion can be processed upon the agreement of a family member.

Section 15

Section 15(Restriction on Induced Abortion) 
 1. Induced abortion can be processed only within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.
 2. In cases that mother or father has a genetic disease, the disease has to be serious that it would threaten the embryo's life.
 3. In cases that mother or father has an infectious disease, the disease has to be serious that it would threaten the embryo's life.


Historical Background

People were aware of abortion, but in 1950's and 1960's, influenced by the Korean War and lack of technology, not many abortions was actually practiced. After, the government continued to try to minimize abortion until 1996 in order to accomplish their ideal policy at the time. In 1980's, the compressed need and desire for abortion started rising, and according to the survey by Korean Gallup Poll, there were about 150 million abortion practices done annually from the beginning of 1980's and the beginning of 1990's. This number is as twice high as the number of newborns in 1994.

After marking its peak in the beginning of 1990's, abortion rate has been decreased each year, reaching about 34 million practices in 2005 and finally 16 million practices in 2010.[2] In the same period of time, the number of newborns in was 45 millions in 2005 and 47 millions in 2010.


From long history of Korea, Buddhism has been the national religion until Christianity approached. The government of Korea strongly believed in Buddhism and use to build all laws and policies based on Buddhist beliefs. In Buddhists' view, as soon as an embryo is fertilized, it is a form of a life. Buddhists are very restrictive on killing any kind of life, including small insects and animals. With the old history of Buddhism Based on their belief, killing a life is a sin and the same idea goes for abortion. However, when an embryo is threatening mother's life, then abortion may be seen as a way of saving one life by sacrificing the other[3]. There is nothing in the world that identifies which life is more important than the other, so the choice of abortion, in that case, should be given to the mother. .


Christianity in Korea is believed to be firstly brought in by SeungHun Lee in the 18th century when he brought the Catholic as a new religion from Rome Catholic Church[4]. When it first approached, it faced a serious political persecution and oppression, as some of the Christian beliefs were in contradict with traditional Buddhist beliefs. However, Christianity has been increasing massively that now there are about 8.6 million members and 5.3 members of Protestantism and Catholicism respectively. [5] The greatest change that Christianity brought was that it aimed for freedom and equality for every human being. In one perspective, it pursued against abortion because abortion is also considered as killing a precious life. In another perspective, it sought the freedom that everyone should be given, which raised the freedom of choice women should get. This view indirectly led to a social movement for more freedom for women, including the freedom to choose to get the abortion or not. In general, Korean Catholic organizations have been consistent with making its official position against abortion in respect to the dignity of every life. [6]

Sexual Education in South Korea

Sexual education in Korea is mandatory in middle school and high school. The main goal is to education young people in the proper way with the rightful interpretation of their own body and sexual intercourse as a practice of love. However, it has been receiving a criticism that it focuses too heavily on negative perspective toward sex in general. Most of the materials they talk about in sexual education at school are about awareness of the danger of rape, abortion, how to avoid sex, and awareness of men and women's sexual organs. When students learn about abortion, they are shown a video of an embryo, being torn apart in mother's uterus by induced abortion, in order to alert the harm abortion does to a young living life. Many people argue that such sexual education in Korea is not practical. In fact, a survey by Chosun revealed that 77.1% of students in Korea think that the sexual education at school is "just boring, useless, and impractical" [7] Many people suggest that there needs to be improvement on sexual education in which it can approach young people at their level, instead of throwing negatively biased information to them and teaching them sex is a bad thing.

Abortion Rate in South Korea

Because abortions are illegal in Korea (except for few cases) and reporting is not mandatory, it is very difficult to keep track of an accurate number of abortions performed annually. Thus, the data comes from the number of reported abortion as well as the surveys given to hospitals and private clinics. The highest number of abortions was in 1981, about 620,000 induced abortions were performed. This means that 64% per 1000 women ages 15-44 performed the abortion. In 2010, it is estimated that 169,000 induced abortions were performed, which is about 15.8% per 1000 women ages 15-44. [8]

Year Live Births Abortions, reported Abortion % of pregnancies Abortion rate per 1000 women ages 15-44
1970 1006645 331000 24.7 50.1
1975 874869 584000 40.0 63.9
1981 867409 620000 41.7 64.0
1990 649738 410000 38.7 36.5
1996 691226 239000 25.7 19.6
2005 435031 342433 44.0 29.8
2008 465892 241000 34.1 21.9
2009 444849 188000 29.7 17.2
2010 470171 169,000 26.4 15.8

*table is derived from [9]

Generation Difference

Older Generation's Perspective

Even though the fundamental Buddhist belief that every life is precious and killing any kind of life is considered as a sin, people in older generation in Korea did not use to consider an embryo as living life. It was a living life only once the baby is born. Moreover, in the 1960s and 1970s, South Korea had one child policy to slow population growth. [10] As a result, abortion rate was much higher in 1960's and 1970's than the abortion rate in recent. Women's right to have a choice over abortion was not considered at all and abortion was not a social issue in older generation.

Younger Generation's Perspective

Younger generation in Korea is much more influenced by cultures from different countries and different social norms. They are thought to be more open-minded and willing to eliminate old policies and adopt new policies from different cultures if the certain policy is arguably considered as wrong or no longer fit the current society's circumstances. Less affected by traditional Buddhist beliefs and more influenced by western culture, younger people's perspective is thought to be more open for abortion as a women's choice. With realizing the importance of every living life, there are more women in current society suggesting that the law for abortion should be reconsidered in a way that women should be given a freedom to get an abortion and to choose what they want to do with their own body. Their main claim is that the government should not have held the power to decide women's physical freedom. They argue that having an unwanted pregnancy would not result in a good financial, family, psychological environment for not only pregnant women but also for the baby. Moreover, they suggest that inhibiting abortion by law will only result in higher rate of illegal abortion, in which women has to put themselves at risk of getting the unsafe abortion by uncertain method. Rather, by allowing abortion, it will enable for the government to put proper tax and provide proper education after abortion.[11] Simultaneously, the voice to pursue prohibition of abortion is rising as well, as many recent scientific evidences suggest that embryo certainly is a living human. Nowadays, there is more awareness of various evidences from both sides with more knowledge so that the debate over abortion is rising as a new social issue.

See Also


Ministry for Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs, The Basic Plan on Aging Society and Population of Korea (Seoul: Ministry for Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs, 2010).

The preference for sons caused the sex ratio at birth, normally about 105 male babies born to 100 females to begin rising in the early 1980s as the birth rate fell. It peaked in the early 1990s at about 115-117. By 2008, it had virtually returned to normal despite a TFR of only 1.2. This suggests that, if a Korean couple has only one child, it no longer need be a son, quite a significant change in behavior.

LEE, Y. (2013). A Study on the Discourse and Reality of Abortion in Korea: 1920s~1930s. Korean Journal Of Medical History, 22(1), 133-178.

Jeon, HS, Seo, HG. (2003). Abortion in Korea Since 1945. Doctors, 12(2). 129-143.

Hwang, Kim, Hwang, Lee, Shim, Bae, Paik, Park (2014). Coxsackievirus B Infection is Highly Related with Missed Abortion in Korea. Yonsei Medical Journal, 55(6):1562-1567.