Abortion in South Korea: Ways Forward?
In 2019, the Constitutional Court of South Korea found the criminalization of abortion unconstitutional and granted lawmakers until 31 December 2020 to revise the abortion law. Yet, the lawmakers failed in meeting this deadline. To this date, while abortion is decriminalized, no new law has been enacted.
We discussed the situation in South Korea with Dr. Sunhye Kim, Assistant Professor from Ewha Womans University. Dr. Kim shared findings from her latest research on the uptake of abortion pills through Women on Web and insights for ways forward for safe abortion in South Korea.
Abortion was recently decriminalized in South Korea following a decision by the Constitutional Court. Could you please tell us what happened next?
The decriminalization came as a result of a constitutional court decision. The judges found the criminalization of abortion unconstitutional and asked the parliament to pass a new law, decriminalizing abortion. The parliament had more than a year for this, and in fact there was a revised bill. However, this was never reviewed in the congress. So the situation now is not too straightforward; abortion is decriminalized, and a new abortion law is overdue.
Where do we stand today in terms of abortion rights in South Korea? What are the legal grounds and can women easily access safe abortion?
Abortion is not illegal in South Korea, but this does not mean that everyone can access it. Since no new policy or guidelines have been created since the decision of the constitutional cour, there is no legal basis neither to claim abortion access nor to set up a new health care system to ensure such access. This entraps abortion access into a privilege, a privilege of the few who can find and afford services.
What are the legal actions and policies that should follow the decriminalization of abortion, to ensure safe abortion access?
We need a comprehensive law about sexual and reproductive health, which not only ensures safe abortion access for all women, but also provides sexual and reproductive health and rights for all people. Existing laws have various limits, and some of their provisions are ruled unconstitutional. A major concern with these laws is also that they do not consider abortion as essential healthcare. As abortion is now decriminalized, it is now time to integrate it in the healthcare system, as an essential care, and make new policies, centered around women, their needs and preferences.
Your research attests to an increasing uptake of abortion pills in South Korea? Why do you think this is the case?
After 2010s, abortion has gradually become more and more difficult to access in South Korea, and this is not coincidental. Since the mid 2000s, the government has been concerned about the decreasing fertility rate, and hence they were more interested in regulating and restricting abortion access under pronatalist policies.
Why do people choose to have an abortion? And why medical abortion? Can you walk us through the main takeaways of your research pertaining to medical abortion?
Abortion is obviously related to unwanted pregnancy, and there may be many reasons for this. In our research, we saw that an unwanted pregnancy can be both a result of contraceptive failure or non-use. We also found that women choose medical abortion because of legal restrictions and concerns around confidentiality, privacy and stigma. We often consider that medical abortion benefits women and contributes to women’s empowerment. However, in our study, we saw that many women choose medical abortion, because they were not able to access abortion services in South Korea and medical abortion provided an easier way to access safe abortion in that restrictive setting.
Despite the growing demand for abortion pills, medical abortion is still not available in South Korea. Why is providing medical abortion important? Why do we need to discuss medical in South Korea in addition to surgical abortion?
I’ll reverse this question, and ask: Why do we prohibit medical abortion? There is no scientific reason to prohibit medical abortion. We know that it is safe and effective, and is being practiced worldwide. We also know that medical abortion can bring several advantages and facilitate access to safe abortion. For example, it could facilitate safe abortion access for people living with disabilities.
We have different contraceptive methods available, so we offer people with different options they can choose as per their needs and preferences. We should do the same with abortion and offer different methods and options.
Your work also shows that telemedicine abortion is widely accepted and used by South Korean women. What is the role of telemedicine in abortion access generally - and Women on Web more specifically - in South Korea? Do you think telemedicine abortion can be incorporated into the South Korean health system?
Women on Web was one of the actors, who played a key role in decriminalization of abortion. Despite the local restrictions, thanks to Women on Web, South Korean women had a venue to access safe medical abortion. Abortion stigma is still very high in South Korea, so that is certainly another reason why people hesitate visiting a clinic. So, Women on Web enabled them to circumvent that stigma and medical hierarchy. The uptake of abortion pills through Women on Web also showed authorities that abortion is something that they cannot ban and eradicate.
You had elections recently, how do you see the future of abortion in South Korea?
We currently have an anti-feminist government. For example, recently there was a move to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. This opposition to gender equality may have far fetched consequences and implications.
Anything else you want to add?
One of the major problems I see is that abortion is not covered by health insurance and the cost is unregulated. Clinics have largely commercialized this service, which turns it into a privilege of few. Going forward, it is essential that abortion is included in the national health coverage, for everyone and for all indications.
Last updated: 20 January 2023