South Korea has a problem: according to critics its abortion legislation is out of date. So earlier this month, a bill to decriminalize it up to the fourteenth week of was tabled in the South Korean parliament.

South Korea has banned abortion since 1953. Exceptions were introduced in 1973 for cases of rape or incest. However, the Constitutional Court overturned the ban in April last year because it hadrestricted women’s rights. The government was ordered to draft a new law.

The bill bans abortion after 14 weeks except in cases of rape or incest, if the mother’s health is at risk, or if the foetus shows signs of severe birth defects. Under these circumstances, it would be allowed up to 24 weeks.

Even if it is not legal, abortion is still common in South Korea. According to the Health Ministry, 30 out of every 1,000 Korean women between the ages of 15 and 44 had an abortion in 2005. This put South Korea in the top three countries for abortions per capita, behind Russia and Vietnam.

Pro-life critics oppose the new legislation on the grounds that all life is sacred and should be protected. Feminists, however, believe that it does not go far enough. “Women’s organizations are very critical of the plan as the government is still maintaining a policy of regarding women as the ones who need to be controlled, not individuals who have the right to decide their sexual and reproductive health,” Oh Kyung-jin, of the Korean Women’s Associations United told Deutsche Welle.

Paradoxically, South Korea has another reproductive health problem: there’s not much reproduction. Its fertility rate, at 0.91 births per woman in 2019, is just about the lowest in the world. According to the 2020 United Nations Population Fund report, it is far behind the global average of 2.4 births per woman and the population replacement level of 2.1. In Seoul, the largest city and the capital, the rate is just 0.84.

This is causing problems. Since the early 1980s over 3,500 schools have closed. The pool of young men available for military service is shrinking.

South Korea is the fastest-ageing developed country. In 1950, fewer than 3 percent of the population was over 65. Today, that figure is about 15 percent. By 2065, it will be about 40 percent.

The declining number of young people is straining the pension system and economic growth. Provincial cities are imploding. The country is accelerating over a demographic cliff.

Let’s do something about this, say government planners. Over the past decade or so, the South Korean government has spent about US$181 billion to boost the birth rate.

IVF for infertility is freely available, with the government picking up 70 percent of the tab. The government helps to arrange marriages with brides imported from poorer Asian countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. Childcare is generous.

None of it has worked. The birth rate keeps sinking.

And now South Korea is liberalising its abortion law. Does making it easier not to have children make any sense — in a country which is melting away for lack of children? Even in South Korea doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insane.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet