By Lee Kyung-min
Obstetricians and gynecologists are protesting a government plan to slap heavier sanctions on doctors who perform abortions, which while illegal are common here.
They vowed to stop performing abortions next month if the government doesn't withdraw the plan.
Late last month, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced a plan to revise related regulations, which included suspending the licenses of doctors for up to one year.
In Korea, abortion is illegal. Women who have abortions are subject to a prison term of up to one year or a fine of up to 2 million won ($1,800). Doctors can face up to two years in prison, but such doctors, if indicted, usually get a 1 million won to 2 million won fine. Abortion is allowed only in limited cases including rape, incest or if the mother has a genetic illness.
However, abortion is still the only way for many women to terminate unwanted pregnancies, and it is a widely known secret that the illegal practice is available from many licensed doctors.
Kim Dong-seok, head of the Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said punishing doctors for performing abortions is not a fundamental solution to the problem that requires social consensus following in-depth discussions.
"The government is refusing to deal with reality by making this an issue of a crime committed by doctors and women," he said.
Kim also cited possible consequences including teen pregnancy and unprepared adults being forced to bear children. "Also, according to the current law, rape victims cannot have abortions if they cannot prove they were raped due to a lack of evidence," he said. "If the government just classifies abortion as an immoral medical practice without proper backup measures, it could lead to abortions by unlicensed individuals in unhygienic places, or in other countries, resulting in higher health risks for women."
Kim said his group will organize a petition to protest the government measure. If the government does not change its plan by Nov. 2, the association members will stop offering the procedure, he said.
The ministry, however, is maintaining its position on the tougher regulations, saying there is a social consensus to strengthen punishment for illegal medical practices. "We'll collect opinions from the public and related experts before finalizing the regulations," a ministry official said.
According to the ministry's data in 2010, about 170,000 abortions were carried out in the country. Medical circles believe that almost 200,000 women undergo the procedure every year.
Separate ministry data in 2015 showed that almost 70 percent of women having abortions did so for reasons unrelated to their health.
Some 43 percent cited unwanted pregnancies, followed by economic burden (14.2 percent), social stigma (7.9 percent) and not being ready to be a parent (3.7 percent). Only 16.3 percent cited the woman's health and 10.5 percent the baby's health.