Seeking decriminalization of abortion, women cry out “Hands off my uterus!”

Posted on : 2016-10-17 16:01 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Women gathering to resist government plans to stiffen penalties for doctors who perform abortions
A demonstration in front of the Bosingak belfry in Seoul’s Jongno district crowded with hundreds of people dressed in black
A demonstration in front of the Bosingak belfry in Seoul’s Jongno district crowded with hundreds of people dressed in black

The area in front of the Bosingak belfry in Seoul’s Jongno district was crowded with hundreds of people dressed in black at 2 pm on Oct. 15.

Most appeared to be women in their twenties, but quite a few young men and middle-aged women were present. They were gathered to protest a Sep. 22 legislative announcement by the Ministry of Health and Welfare on an enforcement decree and rules for the Medical Services Act that would raise the maximum suspension period for doctors performing “immoral treatment acts” from its current one month to one year. The category of “immoral treatment acts” includes so-called proxy surgery - the subject of a recent controversy - along with the use of nonpermitted injections, sexual assault during treatment, and pregnancy termination procedures. The dress code for Oct. 15 was inspired by a recent protest in Poland, where black-clad women helped get a planned abortion ban rejected.

The participants were united in calling for decriminalization of abortion. Signs bore the names of feminist groups like Fire Femi Action, Femi Dangdang, and Gangnam Station Exit 10 (after a young woman was murdered there in May), along with phrases such as “My womb is my own, decriminalize abortion” and “Hands off my uterus! The state needs to stop being high and mighty.” Participants also took advantage of free speaking to share their own and others’ experiences with contraception, pregnancy, and abortion - all while stressing that safe abortions are a basic right for women.

“We have the freedom to be pregnant if we want, and to not be pregnant if we don‘t want it,” said artist and Dutiful Daughter Alliance representative Hong Seung-hee. “My womb is my own, not a public asset.”

The amendment has already prompted a growing abortion debate, with obstetricians, gynecologists, and women’s groups coming out strongly against it.

“The current Mother and Child Health Act prescribing the circumstances when pregnancy terminations may be permitted does not reflect reality at all,” said Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists director Kim Dong-seok.

“There‘s a problem with this focus on stepping up punishments against ob/gyns when 99% percent of pregnancy terminations are because of unwanted pregnancies,” Kim added.

“If punishments for pregnancy terminations are stiffened like the government plan, ob/gyns will declare a full-scale halt to abortion procedures,” he warned.

The current Mother and Child Health Act permit pregnancy termination procedures only in cases where the mother or her spouse has a genetic mental disorder or physical ailment; the mother has a specific infectious disease; the pregnancy is the result of rape, quasi-rape, or incest; or when the pregnancy is seriously detrimental to the mother’s health.

Women‘s rights groups and progressive healthcare groups are also opposed to the stiffer penalties on abortions.

“The punishments for pregnancy terminations at the woman’s request should simply be eradicated,” said Jeong Seul-ah, a member of the women’s health team for Womenlink. “There’s been talk about punishing abortion because of [South Korea’s] low birth rate, but instead of simply stiffening the penalties, they should be identifying the reasons women avoid childbirth and creating an environment where they are able to bear and raise children.”

Women’s rights groups are currently preparing to hold a press conference as early as Oct. 17 to voice objections to the stronger penalties on pregnancy termination and demand the decriminalization of abortion.

Some are now arguing the situation should be used as an opportunity to bring the issue of abortion into public debate.

“The Mother and Child Health Act terms on the scope of allowances for pregnancy terminations are already 50 years old and include discriminatory content in terms of genetic and mental illness,” said Choi An-na, an ob/gyn at the National Medical Center.

“We first need to amend the law to reflect reality, and then we need to allow limited pregnancy termination procedures according to the law,” Choi said.

By Kim Yang-joong, medical correspondent and Ahn Young-choon, staff reporter

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