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In protest, doctors refuse to perform abortions

Aug 29,2018
Doctors in the Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said on Tuesday that they would refuse to conduct any abortions - legal or illegal - in protest of the central government’s characterization of illegal abortions as “unethical.”

The rift began on Aug. 17, when the Ministry of Health and Welfare listed disciplinary actions to be taken against doctors who commit unethical medical practices. Before, the ministry would determine whether to take action against a doctor on a case-by-case basis.

The new rules codify what those practices are, and the list includes illegal abortions alongside sexual harassment, assaulting patients and illegally prescribing narcotics. Doctors who illegally perform abortions can have their license suspended for one month.

Abortion is illegal in Korea except in five cases: when one or both parents have a genetic disease; when an infectious disease threatens the child; when a mother becomes pregnant through rape; when a mother becomes pregnant with a relative by blood; or when a pregnancy severely puts the mother at risk of health complications.

Still, some doctors do perform abortions at the request of patients outside of these circumstances. A study by Pai Chai University and Yonsei University last year estimated that there could be up to 500,000 illegal abortions a year in Korea.

The association, which includes about 1,800 doctors, took issue with the government’s characterization of such abortions as “unethical.”

“The government does not understand the severity of the issue here, why women have to seek abortion secretly,” a spokesman for the association said in a news conference on Tuesday at the Korean Medical Association’s branch office in Yongsan District, central Seoul. “Punishing doctors and women who face inevitable decisions to conduct abortions secretly does not solve the problem.”

The spokesman said the ministry’s rules would only lead to more underground abortions.

“There is no reason for obstetricians and gynecologists to lose sleep over the betterment of citizens’ health and still be called out this way and face disciplinary action for what they do,” the spokesman said. “The government in calling abortion procedures unethical is calling the doctors who conduct them unethical.”

However, the association clarified that it was not seeking complete legalization of abortion.

“We are not looking for legalization of abortion here,” the spokesman said, “but since the Constitutional Court is reviewing whether to decriminalize abortion, we think that it is only right that the government postpones any announcement of disciplinary action against doctors regarding abortion until the court makes a decision.”

The Health Ministry said the disciplinary action against illegal abortions was not new.

“Doctors who conducted illegal abortions have had their licenses suspended for a month before,” a ministry official told the JoongAng Ilbo.

The Constitutional Court is currently deliberating on whether to completely lift the abortion ban.

A ruling was initially expected to come by the end of the month, but the court recently announced that it would be delayed beyond August.

Apart from rape, pregnancy through a blood relative and risk to the mother’s health, the current law only allows abortions when one or both parents has a genetic mental disability or physical illness prescribed by presidential decree, which includes achondroplasia, a type of bone growth disorder that usually results in dwarfism; cystic fibrosis, which can develop into a fatal lung condition; and any genetic conditions that can have lethal effects on an infant.

Abortion is also legal when the mother or her spouse has any contagious disease prescribed by presidential decree, which currently includes German measles and congenital toxoplasmosis, a type of parasite infection.

BY ESTHER CHUNG, LEE ESTHER [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]