A number of things happened over the past few weeks that bothered me about how women, their role, and the issues of sex and sex education are viewed in Korea. The first was an AP article on March 17 entitled “SKorean women caught in abortion limbo.” The article stated that getting an abortion in South Korea was once so routine that the country was known as the “Abortion Republic.” I don’t have the statistics but was also told years ago that Korea had one of the highest abortion rates in the world, and I personally know of many Korean women who have had pregnancies terminated, most of them young.
In an effort to slow the country’s plunging birthrate, the article continued, the government had started enforcing a long-ignored ban on abortions. Of course, this has stopped doctors and hospitals advertising the procedure but merely driven the practice underground and raised the price from hundreds to thousands of dollars. It went on to state that birth control is a taboo subject in South Korea, “a nation shaped by a Confucian heritage that prizes chastity.” Again, I have been told by Korean friends that practical sex education is almost non-existent in schools here, as politicians and policymakers prefer to think there will be no sex outside of marriage or unwanted children. I in no way support abortion as de facto birth control, but perhaps the figures warrant a rethinking of sex education and how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. The latest data available, AP said, was an estimated 350,000 abortions in the country in 2005, or about 30 in every 1,000 women between 15 and 44.
That unmarried teens and women are having sex, so deserve some information, was evident in another article published by the JoongAng Daily the same day. Data from the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service showed there were around 3,300 teenage births in 2008. And not only do their schools fail them in teaching how to avoid such situations, but many of them forced the girls to leave the school. (The National Rights Commission did rule this was discriminatory in a case where a student’s mother brought the case to their attention, but how many families would be willing to face that public stigma?)
Then, in a totally unrelated but not dissimilar incident reported to me by a former colleague at JoongAng Daily, Korea Communications Commission chairman Choi See Joong told a group of female reporters on March 18 that he wants women to “be wise mothers and good housewives rather than having jobs.” He continued, “Women’s roles should be based on households ... otherwise, there is no way to solve the low birthrate crisis.”
No doubt it is that kind of fossilized thinking that keeps many of Korea’s female population uninformed about sexual choice and health, the teen pregnancy rate high and women like the one quoted in the AP article working second jobs to afford abortions. “Activists and policymakers can debate all they want,” Kim was quoted as saying, “but I'm the one sweeping floors to kill my baby.”
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer
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