Controversial Book on Abortion in South Korea Triggers Debate


The recent publication of a book by twenty-five Korean women who had abortions has stirred up debate about the widespread, albeit illegal practice of abortion in South Korea.

The twenty-five women each told the story of their decision and the grief they have dealt with since going ahead with their procedures. Coverage by Seoul News pointed out the ‘inconvenient truth’ that, contrary to public opinion, most women who have abortions are married women, not unwed teenagers.

The women profiled in the new book talked about the discrimination they suffered from doctors, their peers, and their husbands. In the words of Jeong-min, an office worker in her forties, “Telling women they have to give birth no matter what without also changing our perceptions about single mothers or providing more support for them doesn’t make any sense.”

image by Lee Hye-son, Seoul Sinmun

Image by Lee Hye-son, Seoul News

Online reaction to the article called for better sex education in schools, although comments were sharply divided when it came to whose fault it was when a woman has an abortion.

Many readers criticised the twenty-five profiled women for their perceived selfishness, while others attacked men for being reluctant to use contraception.

From Seoul News:

No woman wants to have an abortion’…no human rights for women on the operating table

‘It was the saddest moment of my life. No woman wants to have an abortion.’

‘I Had An Abortion,’ published on February 20th by Women Link, an NGO devoted to women’s issues in South Korea, exposes the hidden suffering of twenty-five women. These women made the brave decision to step forward because they wanted to talk openly about the reality facing women who have had an abortion. In South Korea, abortion is a cause for controversy, as society forces a ‘scarlet letter’ on any women who makes the decision to have such an operation. In this atmosphere, women would rather remain silent than be publicly criticised. As the debate is tied up in issues of life and ethics, it is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Is a fetus a life? At what week does life begin? IS abortion equivalent to murder?…

No one has an abortion because they wanted one. The women featured in the book talk about how they worried over the physical pain and the emotional cost before they made their final decision. The memory of the operation has also proved to be a terrible burden. 40-year-old Mi-young, an elementary school teacher, said that she will never be able to put the memories of her abortion out of her mind. ‘You feel the guilt of having killed a baby. Any time something bad happens to me, that guilt comes back. You feel like ‘am I being punished for having done something wrong?’ As long as I live, I will never be able to forget it.’

And yet the number of women who make the decision to climb on to the operating table is rising. According to the results of a 2010 nationwide survey of four thousand women likely to become pregnant, (those between the ages of fifteen and forty-four) by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, 15.8 of every 1000 respondents said they had carried out ‘cessation of a pregnancy’, meaning they had an abortion. If results of the survey are extrapolated to the total population, in 2010, 170,000 babies in South Korea died before ever seeing the light of day.

Abortion remains officially illegal. According to South Korea’s ‘Mother and Child Health Law’, abortion is permitted when the child has a genetic or infectious disease, when the mother is a victim of rape ‘quasi-rape’ (meaning they were mentally unable to resist their rapist) or incest, and when there is a risk to the mother’s health. In addition, abortion in such cases can only be performed before the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy. In cases of illegal abortion, both the mother and the medical personnel involved are punished. Despite these legal restrictions, women who have experienced an abortion say, ‘there is no such thing as a hospital that does not perform abortions.’ Rather than reducing the number of abortions, criminalisation has only made the operations more expensive, secretive, and dangerous.

Women going through an abortion are consistently made to feel that they have done something wrong. Thirty-year-old translator Su-hyeon recalled, ‘the hospital just looks at it as a way to make money, all they think about is the price. The doctors acted like they were taking care of an irritating burden, I couldn’t believe anything could be that humiliating.’ Hye-jin, an athlete in her early forties, said that her doctor had told her, ‘you’ve got to be careful when you’ve got a body that gets pregnant easily. They lectured me like I was some kind of sex maniac. I apologised for my behavior but they just kept criticising me. It’s not as if I was asking them to do the surgery for free.’

Why do women decide to have an abortion? Many people consider abortions to be the result of ‘sexual impropriety’, however 57% of all abortions are performed on married women. Many married women decide to have an abortion because they cannot handle the costs involved with raising a child. 40-year-old Hee-young said that after having two children just one year apart, she decided to abort a third pregnancy. ‘the cost of childcare, diapers, and formula adds up to ₩2,500,000 a month. Because I work during the day, I have to leave my children with someone else, but that also made me feel bad. The economic cost I was facing made me feel trapped.’ Yoo-jin, a homemaker in her thirties, said, ‘my husband makes ₩3-4,000,000 a month working at a small company, which is barely enough to support raising two children. There just wasn’t enough to feed and clothe a third child.’

Unmarried women featured in the book also confessed how they were worried about the whispers that would have followed them, since the prejudice against a ‘maiden’ getting pregnant outside of marriage remains strong. Min-jeong, a hagwon teacher in her thirties, said that she just could not bring herself to tell anyone that she had gotten pregnant. ‘People have sex before marriage. You don’t have to be having sex all the time or doing it in a depraved way to get pregnant, yet when single women get pregnant they feel such guilt. People are just so conservative and perverted when it comes to sex, when they hear that you got pregnant, they look at you like ”she must have been getting it on all the time.’’

The women also expressed concern over the ridicule their child would face for being a ‘kid with no dad’. Forty-year-old civil servant Hye-ran said, ‘no one would go through with the surgery if they thought their child could succeed regardless of the circumstances of his birth. But our society discriminates against people from the day they are born on the basis of who their parents are, how they got pregnant, whether they were married, their sexual orientation, and where they went to school. ‘Telling women they have to give birth no matter what without also changing our perception of single mothers or providing better support systems for them doesn’t make any sense,’ said Jeong-min, an office worker in her forties, ‘such an approach is both irresponsible and cruel to the mother and to the child.’

A society’s conservative outlook on sex and a lack of sex education can also be considered a contributing factor. Mi-young explained that she had been using a natural contraception method when she became pregnant. ‘I was too embarrassed to tell him to wear a condom. I thought carrying around condoms would look like I was thinking about sex all the time. Telling him to put on a condom would have made me appear easy or like I had a lot of experience.’ Another women profiled in the book described a similar thought process. Her sexual education in school only covered sexual anatomy for men and women and the process of how a fertilised egg becomes a baby, skipping any mention of sex itself. ‘My husband just told me to take of it. He said he didn’t like the feeling of a condom. We used the rhythm method and he tried to always finish outside of me, but in the end, I got pregnant.’

Opponents of abortion also support expanding services to new and single mothers. Choe Jeong-yoon, the Director of Operations at Korea Pro-life, stated that, ‘a neglect for the value of human life, prohibitively expensive childcare, and fear of the discrimination against unmarried parents all factor into the decision to have an abortion… We need to create the infrastructure in our society that will allow all parents to raise their children safely.’

Comments from Daum:


Contraception and abortion are completely different things.. If you really love someone, then you should be able to talk about contraception and avoid this tragedy


Reading the comments, it looks like there are still a lot of despicable people out there who treat women like objects. I can’t tell if they are human beings or pieces of garbage, stop trying to twist the knife when people are in pain. Please try to love yourself and meet someone who will treat you with respect.


We need to have better sex education in our schools about pregnancy and contraception. I have no idea why there is still such a lack of information in our schools.


Wear a condom you selfish bastards


We have got to reevaluate how we look at this, 57% of abortions are being done on married women… only 1.1% of people who get abortions do it because ‘I was still a teenager’..


How can you not know about contraception at the age of forty? A simple web search shows hundreds of resources for information about contraception. Don’t blame other people when the fault lies with you. Don’t act so helpless, the real sad cases are the children who you threw into the garbage can. If you’re having your fun then you also need to take responsibility tsk tsk


You have the same responsibility whether you’re a man who doesn’t use contraception or a woman who gets it on without planning ahead


Your husband makes ₩3-4,000,000 a month and you couldn’t stand to take care of a third child? How can you take care of a household? People making even less manage to make ends meet and take care of more than three children..You got an abortion just because you couldn’t think of anyone besides yourself…


This article makes it seem like it is solely the man’s responsibility to bring contraception. It should be the responsibility of both people. Before you tell the man to wear a condom, how about trying to use the female version? Men who say they hate the feeling of a condom should get a vasectomy, bunch of selfish people


Make sure to use your girlfriend cleanly and not leave a mess for the next man


This isn’t just the responsibility of women. Don’t men also need to think about contraception? Just a little forethought can make you a more decent human being.


When it comes to women, even if they are over the age of forty, if they want to sleep with someone, all they have to do is use some of the dirty words they learned in high school and giggle..But if a guy like me were to ever do something like that, they would just think I’m a filthy pervert.

즐거운 인생:

Regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, use contraception. It’s good when you’re having fun, right? Some clueless individuals are putting all of the responsibility on the man when women act like they have no idea what a birth control pill is or think a condom is a balloon. Get your heads straight, it would be so much better if you changed the way you look at things.


What are you talking about? Women have abortions because they want them. Stop trying to call it something else or go on about their sensitive feelings ke ke ke On message boards for woman and feminists they talk all about how to get an abortion. Rather than giving any thought to the baby they all just worry about how it will affect their figure or which hospital to go to for an inexpensive abortion ke ke ke


What a bunch of excuses..Why didn’t you use contraception? If you thought it was risky, then just don’t have sex. All trying to find excuses to justify their behavior. Except for cases of rape, you can always avoid abortion.


While I think that there definitely should be sex education and more teaching about contraception, I also think that legalising abortion for people who want it would be better than the current situation. Legal abortions would be a lot better than having women throw away babies after an unwanted pregnancy.


It may have changed recently but it certainly is an inconvenient truth that more abortions are had by married women than unmarried. Even given that it is hard to find out the exact number of abortions carried out by single women, the rate of abortion by married women was also much higher a long time ago. Back then, the reason was a wife’s fear about another pregnancy or a desire to maintain the proper age spacing between siblings. In any case, even married couples with children didn’t use contraception. The problem isn’t delinquent teenagers who get pregnant by mistake and who never got proper sex education. The problem is also the parents who don’t know how to control themselves.

즐거운 인생:

Upvote this if you think that an unwanted pregnancy is the man’s fault, downvote if you think it is the woman’s fault. [Comment had 108 upvotes and 62 downvotes].


Abstinence would make the mother and the child happy..this is a shame


This is ridiculous, you are all trying to claim that it’s the other person’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of both the man and the woman! Be careful!

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  • Ruaraidh

    Why does everything have to be someone’s fault. Sometimes fuck-ups seem to find you no matter what you do. You shouldn’t rush to condemn people’s actions unless you really know the circumstances.

    • hun

      because 1 + 1 = 2 + 1 = 3 – 1 = 2 -1 = 1 when it really should be 1 + 1 = 2 + 1 = 3 – 1 = 2/1 = 2

      • Ruaraidh

        Um sorry, English isn’t my mother tongue, and I’m not fluent in gibberish.

    • Brett

      I think it’s pretty obvious that abortion is a last result for couples/single women. The story is right, nobody considers abortion as a backup plan in case they get pregnant. Most abortions are performed because the parties involved are afraid of the hardships, both emotionally and financially, they and the baby would have to endure after birth.

      There’s no reason other people should have a say in whether or not a woman should have an abortion. The decision-making process alone was enough to keep my wife’s friend up for 3 days. She was terrified of the idea but knew that, if she went through with her pregnancy, her parents would literally disown her. No family, no chance at a wedding in Korea, no future.

    • meo fio

      Abortion is illegal in South Korea? What a backward and primitive country.

      • Isaac

        It’s legal in most cases, you ignorant dummy.

        • Yohan

          No, it’s illegal but routinely performed at most hospitals anyway.

    • ric

      go have an abortion

  • VipVip

    There should really be more education about using contraception. Not just how to use it but also to educate people’s minds to understanding the necessity of it. For men and women alike, and helping people letting go of their anxieties and fears of asking their partner to use it.

    I find it hard to discuss this because this can be seen from many point of views.

    I can understand the woman’s thought about being embarrassed of asking the man to wear protection. But at the same time, why isn’t she e.g using birth control pills? Then again, pills also affect women differently, it depends on the person and on what kind of pill you use. With men, some are okay with using condoms, some don’t like the feel of it (which doesn’t sound justified enough though compared to women’s dislike caused by actual hormonal/mood affecting effects. But if a woman is not using pills just because of ignorance/obliviousness then she has herself to blame.)

    Long story short though, I believe it’s a matter of properly educating people of proper contraception and raise the value of the act of doing so, and making people understand it’s a matter both parts have to be involved in and that there shouldn’t be any reservedness of talking about it with your partner.
    (Hope I was clear, sorry English is not my native tongue.)

  • Yu Bum Suk

    This article immediately reminded me of this:

  • commander

    Both men and women have their share of blame. A woman should be resolute in refusing to have sex with her boyfriend when he doesnt want to use contraception. This is especially important when both of them is not ready for marriage like jobs and mental maturity as responsible adults. Of course the most important among them is the reaffirmation of mutual commitment to each other.

    Many say that education in the necessity of contraceptive use will reduce unwanted pregnancies, leading to a drop in unwed single mothers, most of whom face financial squeeze.

    It will play a role. But the bigger problem is the public perception on sex, which is increasingly regarded as too underestimated in importance among the youth.

    I dont argue for chastity until marriage. What should draw youthful attention is that lovemaking is sacred because it is the most intimate act in life that should be made with a beloved person with lasting commitment though it does not necessarily lead to a marriage.

    But in many cases of abortions, parents of a stillborn baby are hesitant in expressing commitments to each other though the number of uncommitted men are larger than women.

    The euphoric adrenalin-pumping but evanescent momnet of lovemaking should not let youthful lovers believe that their present relations have foundations solid enough to endure in the face of unexpected pregnancy.

    • Peacemaker

      You r not supposed to write any in daytime, good comment though :p

      • commander

        I will be pleased when you click on an up-vote if you like my comment.

  • Kate

    What a sad story, Korean babies are sooooooooooooooooooooooooooo cute. I would gladly adopt any unwanted korean baby. I’ve been trying to talk y husband into adopting a korean baby in a few years if we stay in Korea for a long time. Sigh the world needs a massive contraception education and all men and women need free access to contraception, non perm and perm.

    • dk2020

      International adoptions are getting cut off by the end of this year in South Korea Kate .. Meanwhile, North Korea refugee adoptions by American families have started .. KAD’s I know online are a mixed bag, some are very resentful of being adopted because of bad experiences in foster homes. Have you seen that documentary First Person Plural? I’ll link it .. really good documentary from an adoptee perspective ..

      • Kate

        But it wouldnt be international. Im moving to Korea for a verrrrry long time. And my husband is korean and i have a very big korean family in Korea. How incredibly racist would it be to deny a child a family because im not Korean looking. But im still a healthy fertile young woman, i can have more babies if i wanted, but id like to adopt.

        • dk2020

          more power to you kate .. i wish you and yours the best .. I’m still saving and trying to get my girl to fly with me to korea and the phils this summer ..

          • Kate

            If you come to Seoul, let me know cause we can go out and get our soju and norbang on ^_^

          • dk2020

            of course!~

        • dk2020

          totally off topic kate did u see yuna kim win the figure skating world championship? daebakk!!!

      • harvz

        I agree with this. If the children have homes in Korea, they should grow up in Korean culture before being given to a foreigner. Back when I lived in the states I worked in Social Work and saw first hand how stressful and psychologically damaging it can be for a lot of children adopted into a different culture.

    • YourSupremeCommander

      I was ready to reply that I am a Korean baby and you should adopt me… but then I read you said your husband… oh well, try again next time.

      • dk2020

        eeeh? that was awkward and kinda creepy ..

        • YourSupremeCommander

          son, some people have ZERO sense of humor.

          • dk2020

            i have a sense of humor its just that comment wasn’t really funny ..

      • Kate

        Id adopt you but im pretty strict mom and we eat mostly veggies at my house.

        • YourSupremeCommander


  • PixelPulse

    Both parties need to use contraception if they want to avoid pregnancy, and its incredibly stupid to shame a women for not wanting to have a baby and choosing abortion. Having sex ed classes that actually talk about more then just body anatomy is great too. Theres a lot of solution to lower abortion rates, telling a women off for having one and questioning why she did it is not one of them.

  • Kevin Miles

    This is why feminism is still relevant today.

    • jon776

      Too bad they’re busy bashing men for daring to exist.

      • Kevin Miles

        I am pretty sure their message is a little more complex than ‘We hate men’.

      • Yeah, all those feminists you see everywhere saying men are evil. You see them all the time.

        • jon776

          Yeah, tell me about it. Youtube is filled with them.

          • Because YouTube is a peer-reviewed, respected outlet commonly cited for policy, right?

  • redgirls

    Run Lola, run!

  • Laoshu

    In China, abortions are an efficient and cost effective way of birth control.. Who wants to use condoms anyway…

    • dk2020

      one child policy still in effect in the prc?

    • the female might want the male to use condom because abortion procedure, if im not mistaken, is scraping the uterus wall, so that must be painful. Using condom is better, minus the pain at the end.

      • Ami

        Hey, Psst…
        He was using sarcasm

        • how cunning of him to use this subtle literary device to sow confusion!


  • ggoma

    If Korea treated single moms with an ounce of respect, maybe those single women wouldn’t be getting abortions and living with regret and Korean babies wouldn’t be shipped out of the country by the thousands.

  • Pingback: Korean Gender Reader, March 9-15 | The Grand Narrative()

  • commander

    What is left unsaid, but could be crucial methods to prevent abortion is to strenghen the oversight of illegal abortions which are prevalent in the nation.

    Pregnancy is a boon to married couples, especially infertile ones, but regarded as a heavy burden and troubles by lovers in teens or early twenties. The reality where they can affortd to raise babies financially and psychologically force them to turn to illicit expedient, a closed door abortion that is bound to bring regrets to them later in their lives.

    The misled escape by denying opportunies for unborn babies to live is never vindicated by their carelessness in contraception or uncertain futures.

    To preclude what is otherwise an benediction to couples from turning into a heavy burden and abortions that result in tearful breakups and unerasable scars on minds, clandesine pregnancy termination should be thoroughly banned by tougher punishment of obstertricians involved in illegal abortions.

    The harshier penalizing accompanying enhanced monitoring of abortions can heighten public awareness that unexpected pregnany cannot be resolved by the wrong way and that prospective parents should bear the responsibility for babies on the way.

    If couples cannot get around abortion ban law and faces serious punishment for abortions alongside obstetricians perfroming procedures, lovers mist be more cautious about having sex and will definitely pay bigger attention to contraception, possibly reducing the number of strugging unwed single moms.

    • This is totally incorrect. Tougher laws do not lead to anything but more dangerous and self abortions. If you had done any research you’d know that any country with draconian abortion laws (such as communist Romania) only led to more women dying in botched kitchen table abortions. The clothes hanger depiction of abortion comes from real experiences unfortunately. What is needed is a combination of easily accessible contraception and birth control (abortion being just one), better sex education, support for single parents of both genders and affordable childcare.

      Human reproductive practices in developed countries have changed drastically compared to even 100 years ago, no longer is infant, child and maternal mortality so high that not using contraception and abortion will lead to a 2 or 3 child family. This is a good thing but it also means that more sexual encounters will lead to pregnancy (improved nutrition) and more pregnancies will lead to children that will survive into adulthood. That plus the heavy burden of education costs in Korea mean families can afford fewer children while chances are a couple will have more successful pregnancies.

      On top of that more permanent forms of contraception, particularly vasectomies are extremely discouraged in a culture where continuing the family line with male children is still the primary focus of a married couple. Anything that gets in the way of male virility and fertility are extremely looked down on and discouraged. I mean women are still blamed for not providing male offspring, not only is the male preference ridiculous but it is a widely known fact that the male DNA ends up choosing the sex of the fetus.

      My point is abortion should be made legal in South Korea as it is obvious that many women are in need of the service, not because some Western feminists are trying to push their views on Korea. It should be up to Korean women of ALL social classes to come together and make a majority decision about abortion and the evidence is showing more and more that Korean women need safe, legal abortions as part of their sexual healthcare.

      • commander

        I belatedky noticed the alert from KoreaBang on your reply to my comment, and I want to make a counter argument for your case.

        First of all, the possible side effects from stepped up anti-abortion regulations of increased illegal termination procedures seem right.

        But abortion itself cannot be vindicated in principle as, excepting some extreme pregnancies such as from incest, rape and at the risk of health for exepecting mothers, abortion is an act of killing a life.

        My contention for tougher punishment for illegal abortions is based on tye premise that intensified penalty will serve to heighten public awareness of contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies, making loved couples pause before making love to think over the ramifications of a pregnancy that they aren’t able to cope with.

        As you rightly said, the toughened ban should be accompanies by the public campaign to arouse people’s perception of safe sex and importance of unplanned pregnancies prevention with contraception, and improved and expanded sex education at schools.

        But the staggering number of abortions conducted behind scenes reveald the present anti-abortion law has failed to serve its intemded purpose of life reverence.

        On sone preference tendency that is prevalent in East Asia, including South Korea, I want to note that the confucious tradition in the name of maintaining the family lineage with the first sone is now faced with a dramatic change. A recent survey found that the women to men ratio in children born to newly wed couples is hravily tilted toward female, with many of the surveyed saying they prefer daughters over sons–a reply showing the tradotion of giving priority to sons over daughters losing ground.

        Anyway, with over-the-counter contraceptive medicine available here after law banning the sales of such medication was revised earlier this year, turning a blind eye to abortions with no justifications will remain the source of simmering controversy down the road.

        • Rukie Andrei

          It seems your issue is that you think of it as “killing a life” which makes no sense unless your religion has stated that sperm meeting egg is automatically “a human”.
          And how about EDUCATION making people aware of the ramifications of unwanted pregnancies instead of legal ramifications to scare them.
          these policies you are discussing are basically the way religions treat people: you must scare them into doing as we want and we will make up rules that don’t actually exists in our already morally wrapped texts to justify scaring them into doing what we want.

          Criminalizing abortion solves nothing.
          Education and access to contraception will lower abortion rates but abortion will still be necessary for some women. There is no “life” issue, particularly with first trimester abortions.

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