On 22 September, the Ministry of Health and Welfare, labelling abortion “an immoral treatment act”, issued an announcement that he was changing the administrative rules for health care that would punish doctors with suspensions of up to one year for doing pregnancy terminations. (The punishment is currently one month.)
The current law, called the Mother and Child Health Act, permits abortions only if the woman or her spouse has a genetic mental or physical disorder; the woman has an infectious disease; the pregnancy is the result of rape, quasi-rape, or incest; or when the pregnancy is seriously detrimental to the woman’s health.
The proposed amendments prompted an abortion debate, with obstetricians, gynaecologists, and women’s groups coming out strongly against it. “The current Mother and Child Health Act prescribing the circumstances when pregnancy terminations may be permitted does not reflect reality at all,” said Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists director Kim Dong-seok. “There‘s a problem with this focus on stepping up punishments against ob/gyns, when 99% percent of pregnancy terminations are because of unwanted pregnancies…”
In protest, the Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (KAOG) announced a “full-scale halt” on doing abortions. Minister Chung Chin-youb signalled a retreat on 14 October, saying that he had “ordered a re-examination”. But the KAOG are holding out for a total withdrawal of the proposed regulations.
On 12 October, feminist groups held a press conference in front of the Central Government Complex in Seoul. On 15 October, hundreds of people dressed in black held a rally to demand decriminalization of abortion, inspired by the recent “black protest” in Poland. The abortion debate ignited by the government’s proposed penalties had sparked a campaign for decriminalisation of abortion and women’s right to self-determination.
Members of the Sexuality and Reproduction Forum – a group of individual researchers and members of groups like Women with Disabilities Empathy, Korean Lawyers for Public Interest and Human Rights, Health and Alternative Gender Health Team, and the Network for Global Activists – called for withdrawal of the government’s legislative announcement and the decriminalisation of abortion. The event was joined by women’s rights, disabled persons’ rights, legal, medical, and civic groups and academics, and had collected signatures from 2,085 people by 15 October. It was the first time women‘s rights groups were joined by representatives of groups from other areas of society in a united call to decriminalise abortion.
Adopting the slogan “The real problem is the criminalisation of abortion,” the Forum declared: “It is the state and society that promote abortion, not women. The clear demand of decriminalisation is that we shouldn’t place all responsibility for life on women, but should trust in women’s choices.”
“Women aren’t wombs. They are people before they are mothers,” the Forum said, adding that it would “continue to fight for the health, safety, and lives of women who have been pushed outside the law’s framework. The contradiction between the law and reality will continue as long as abortion exists as a crime.” They went on to issue calls for the state to “systematically improve sexual equality and sex education and guarantee that all women have access to the contraceptive technology and health care facilities they need.”
“This campaign to decriminalise abortion has the ultimate goal of ensuring the right for everyone to practice their own sexuality and motherhood, regardless of marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, illnesses, or economic differences,” said Sexuality and Reproduction Forum researcher Lee Yu-rim in a telephone interview with the Hankyoreh.
Irish solidarity with South Korea
Amid this movement, ROSA, a feminist group associated with the Socialist Party in Ireland, sent a message of support on 16 October for the struggle in South Korea. On its Facebook page, the group posted a picture showing a poster from the demonstration, bearing the words “My womb is mine,” along with supporters holding up signs bearing the hashtag “#BlackProtest” in Korean. “We send our solidarity to women in South Korea protesting for abortion rights and against any attempt to criminalise doctors who perform surgical abortions,” the post read.