Korea’s Abortion Laws Remind Us to Progress, Not Move Backward

Korea’s journey to the decriminalization of abortion reminds America to fight for abortion rights.

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After 67 years of oppression, January 2021 marked a crucial change for Korean women when the criminalization of abortion was ruled unconstitutional and women were finally guaranteed the right to safely abort a fetus before 14 weeks of pregnancy.

Previously, women who underwent abortions were fined around $1,780, and doctors who helped women abort were at risk of being jailed for up to two years. Women had to rely on illegal and dangerous abortion pathways that put their health and life at risk. In a survey by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, 20 percent of respondents admitted to an illegal abortion. Seventy-five percent of women between 15 and 44, the demographic most impacted by abortion laws, responded that the criminalization of abortion was unfair, demonstrating that the Korean court was not representative of its citizens. The privileged wealthy males at the top of the political pyramid, who make up 89 percent of the parliamentary system, had made women’s choices for them.

Even after the Korean court has come to a conclusion on how unconstitutional the criminalization of abortion is, social stigma and shame remain. While America faces the same issues, they are much more amplified in Korea because the official criminalization of abortion promoted censorship. Korean mass media still refuses to depict abortion scenes as a normal and valid process. In a recent drama called “Our Blues,” a pregnant girl clearly expresses wanting an abortion but is prevented from going to the doctor due to necessary parental consent, guilt, and misconceptions about the danger of abortion. Eventually, she decides to raise the baby with her boyfriend. Shows like this one nearly always end with a decision of childbirth, so much so that it is difficult, no matter how severe the circumstances are, to see an actual abortion scene on the big screen. Even if the screenwriters are pro-choice, fear of criticism and the show being socially “canceled” or being stopped from airing still remains because people simply aren’t used to abortion being tolerated.

Consequently, Korean women are indirectly discouraged from getting abortions. On top of the obstacles created by family pressure and the lack of education on abortion, doctors even refuse to perform abortions. Comparatively, social attitudes toward female reproductive rights are more favorable toward women in America, a result of the legal protections that Roe v. Wade gave to American women. The court decision went beyond legal consequences: it empowered women and allowed them to speak up about their abortion rights. We are fortunate that we do not need to reverse the actions of an unfortunate past as Korea has, but this situation will change if Roe v. Wade is overturned. The American legal system regarding abortions will resemble Korea’s past, bringing censorship, stigma, and anti-femininism along. Taking away legal protections will not only unfairly punish women for a basic right, but also change American attitudes toward abortions, eventually raising future generations to disregard female reproductive rights entirely.

Korea’s story is important for America right now because it reflects how far we have

come and how difficult it will be to regain our momentum for women’s rights. It took millions of petition signatures, many days of peaceful protests, and thousands of activists for the Korean government to finally respond to the demand for women’s reproductive rights. We should look toward Korea to see how the criminalization of abortion has supressed women socially, politically, and culturally, and choose to learn from its mistakes. It is the beginning of Korea’s journey in becoming an abortion-safe country, and America should be able to serve as a role model for rising countries such as Korea, not repeat their same mistakes.