Thursday, June 30, 2011

Forced abortions in developing South Korea?

South Korea, with its ultra-low fertility rate (well below replacement level) and its lingering gender imbalance, was once a high-fertility society where families would routinely have four, five, six, even seven or more kids, often continuing to produce new children until they produced a male heir.

When the government put in place family planning — contraception information and contraceptive devices, sterilization, and widespread abortion — it took hold with a vengeance.

Part of this is addressed in a Foreign Policy piece that asks why 160 million girls are missing from East Asia. Here is the section that deals with South Korea specifically:
In South Korea, Western money enabled the creation of a fleet of mobile clinics -- reconditioned U.S. Army ambulances donated by USAID and staffed by poorly trained workers and volunteers. Fieldworkers employed by the health ministry's Bureau of Public Health were paid based on how many people they brought in for sterilizations and intrauterine device insertions, and some allege Korea's mobile clinics later became the site of abortions as well. By the 1970s, recalls gynecologist Cho Young-youl, who was a medical student at the time, "there were agents going around the countryside to small towns and bringing women into the [mobile] clinics. That counted toward their pay. They brought the women regardless of whether they were pregnant." Non-pregnant women were sterilized. A pregnant woman met a worse fate, Cho says: "The agent would have her abort and then undergo tubal ligation." As Korea's abortion rate skyrocketed, Sung-bong Hong and Christopher Tietze detailed its rise in the Population Council journal Studies in Family Planning. By 1977, they determined, doctors in Seoul were performing 2.75 abortions for every birth -- the highest documented abortion rate in human history. Were it not for this history, Korean sociologist Heeran Chun recently told me, "I don't think sex-selective abortion would have become so popular."
I wonder how accurate this characterization is. That is, this description makes it sound like sterilizations were coerced and abortions were forced, criticisms that in the 1980s and beyond would be leveled at Mainland China and their One Child Policy, and one wonders if it was generally true, true in some areas, or rarely the case at all.

On the other hand, the astronomical prevalence of abortion, from what I've heard, well-known and documented. But I have no first-hand knowledge or insight into cases prior to the 1990s (I knew several ob/gyns and medical students who discussed such matters, though often in vague terms) to know if these were anything other than the voluntary abortions that have been the norm in the 1990s and 2000s.


  1. Such depressing news!

  2. That FP piece reeked of blame-Western-whitey-syndrome. You probably read my comments at the Hole, but I'll repost them here. Notice how the story is illustrated with a photo of chubby Chinese babies wearing headbands blazoned with Chinese characters, yet the country that is the poster child of sex-selective abortion does not make an appearance until near the end of a story that supports its "the West is at fault" thesis by focusing on US military ally South Korea and British Commonwealth country India. Blaming the West for China's missing girls problem is a tricky feat that author tries to pull off by citing a UNFPA $50 million grant used to buy computers and train staff. I don't know to what extent UNFPA is staffed, funded, or controlled by Western governments or NGOs, but even if, for argument's sake, we accept the author's assumption that UNFPA = the West, how does author explain the contradictory example of China's neighbor Vietnam, which started getting UNFPA aid in 1977, two years before China, yet is cited at the beginning as a country that had not experienced an unbalanced sex ratio problem until recently? It is possible that the author was unaware of the UNFPA presence in Vietnam, but given her extensive background and research on global family planning, it is likely that the author knew that Vietnam had long gotten UNFPA aid but chose not to examine the country in her piece because it wouldn't support the thesis.

    It would be interesting to hear from other middle-aged health care workers about how widespread the problem of forced abortions was in South Korea. The author was very selective about including or excluding information, so I wouldn't generalize based on the word of one expert cited in this piece with a strong point of view.


Share your thoughts, but please be kind and respectful. My mom reads this blog.