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South Korea laments birthrate drop from anti-child emphasis

WASHINGTON (BP)–South Korean officials are searching for ways to reverse a decline in the country’s birthrate, concluding that a policy of denouncing more than two children per couple as “unpatriotic” has had adverse effects.

The push for a higher birthrate comes as some of South Korea’s doctors have asked for forgiveness for performing illegal abortions for years and are working to cut the number of the abortions in the Asian country.

With South Korea’s fertility rate at 4.5 children per woman in the 1970s, the government started encouraging fewer children, even offering exemption from mandatory army reserve duty if a man underwent sterilization.

By 2008, the birthrate had fallen to 1.19 children per woman, one of the lowest rates in the world, leading South Korean officials to fear that the country’s rapidly aging population will weaken the country’s economic vitality, according to a New York Times report.

Last fall, President Lee Myung-bak called for “bold” steps to increase the nation’s birthrate, The Times said, and now the government is sponsoring public service announcements with messages such as “With abortion, you are aborting the future.”

The Times said South Korea is a country where abortion had not been a hot topic until recently, but now the government is reassessing the practice while a grassroots campaign to stop abortions is progressing.

Choi Anna and Shim Sang-duk, doctors at a Seoul clinic, are helping lead a movement of South Korean obstetricians who have rejected abortion. The group is urging other doctors to confess whether they have performed illegal abortions, The Times said Jan. 6. The group also intends to begin reporting the providers of illegal abortions to law enforcement officials.

Choi and Shim’s practice, Ion Women’s Clinic, performed 30 abortions a month, twice the number of babies it delivered, before stopping in September, The Times reported, noting that almost all were illegal.

Social factors, in addition to government pressure, contributed to the high abortion rate, The Times said. A stigma against unmarried mothers, a bias for boys and a prejudice against disabled people fueled pregnancy terminations.

In an interview with the human dignity website Mercatornet.com, Shim said he performed about 4,000 abortions in two decades. The Times said an abortion procedure in South Korea costs about $340 and is paid for in cash up front because it’s not covered by insurance.

“We sold our soul for money,” Choi said, according to The Times. “Abortion was an easy way to make money.”

In November, they and dozens of other doctors held a news conference in which they sought “forgiveness,” the newspaper reported. Shim told Mercatornet.com he had “suffered pangs of conscience for a long while.”

In addition to calling on obstetricians to stop performing abortions, Shim and Choi have helped establish another organization, Pro-life Doctors. It seeks to convince women not to have abortions and operates a phone line for the reporting of clinics that perform the procedures illegally, according to The Times.

“The goal of our movement is a Korea without abortions,” Shim told Mercatornet.com. “To be more specific, our immediate goal is to reduce the number of abortions to 100,000 cases within 10 years — one-third of what it is today — and to eliminate all forms of abortion except when necessary to save the life of an expectant mother.”

LifeSiteNews.com reported in November that Shim has faced death threats from abortion seekers he has turned away, and he could be forced to close his medical practice following a loss of profits from abortion. Even so, he spoke of emotional rewards he has experienced as a result of his decision, saying he feels like “a young doctor again.”

Officially, South Korea prohibits abortion except when the mother’s health is seriously threatened or in cases of severe genetic problems, rape or incest, according to The Times. Abortion is always illegal beyond 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Researchers have estimated only about 4 percent of the approximately 340,000 abortions in 2005 were performed for legal reasons, The Times reported.

After years of failing to enforce the abortion law, South Korean officials are seeing the effects of their policy and considering a change.

“Even if we don’t intend to hold anyone accountable for all those illegal abortions in the past, we must crack down on them from now on,” Jeon Jae-hee, the country’s minister for health, welfare and family affairs, said.

South Korea’s latest budget calls for increased cash bonuses for families with more than two children as well as more financial aid for single mothers and vouchers for couples seeking help at fertility clinics, The Times reported.
Compiled by Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode and staff writer Erin Roach.

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