Catholic Church's pivotal role in South Korea's pro-life revival

Catholic Church's pivotal role in South Korea's pro-life revival

Babette Francis

In February 2011 the South Korean Catholic Bishops' Conference (CBCK) announced an inspired practical project to help pregnant women enduring difficult circumstances. The CBCK will provide shelters and support for single mothers and free delivery for unmarried pregnant women in Catholic hospitals.

This initiative should be an inspiration to Catholic bishops in other countries, whose conferences have often been big on pro-life rhetoric but sometimes lacking in the immediate help offered to pregnant women.

The CBCK initiative, called "New Life Project," was inaugurated on 7 February 2011 at a Mass presided over by Bishop Gabriel Chang Bonghun of Cheongju, president of the CBCK Committee for Bioethics. He said: "The Catholic Church teaches that human life begins from fertilisation. Abortions and destruction of human embryos are grave crimes that destroy life. We all should be the protectors of life by respecting and loving life and being proclaimers of the Gospel of life."

Catholic hospitals

Unwed pregnant women are encouraged to have their babies through free delivery at Catholic hospitals. Accommodation is then provided following the birth at fifteen church and pro-life group shelters. It is funded by the continued financial support of the dioceses.

Father Casimir Song Yul-sup, Secretary of Pro-life Activities, said the "New Life Project" would help many women. "Annually, some 4,000 single women have their babies and they are great mothers who protect life. This project is concrete action and will help them and many others greatly."

The initiative also includes setting up sex education for youth in Catholic schools and Sunday schools on preventing "unwanted pregnancy."

The Korean Bishops' initiative comes not a moment too soon because the Korean government, panicked by a demographic implosion which threatens the economic stability of the country, is working with some desperation to reverse a heavily pro-abortion culture through a range of measures. It is beginning to enforce the law banning abortions which has technically existed for decades but which was completely ignored.

The law bans abortions except in cases of rape, incest, highly fatal genetic illness of the fetus and serious threat to the life of the mother, but was flagrantly violated in the 1960s and 1970s to combat what the government perceived as a "population explosion".

In November, Kwak Seung-jun, leader of the Presidential Council for Future and Vision, announced proposals to expand benefits for single mothers and provide greater benefits to families with more than two children. He said: "We have been a society that promoted abortion, there are few people who realise abortion is illegal. We must work to create a mood where abortion is discouraged."

Much of the international hysteria about "population explosion" dates back to Paul Erlich's 1968 book, The Population Bomb, which warned of the mass starvation of humans and other major societal upheavals which would occur in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation. The book advocated immediate action to limit population growth, and in 1969 Erlich said if voluntary birth reduction methods did not work a nation might have to resort to "the addition of a temporary sterilant to staple food or to the water supply."

Ehrlich's book has been criticised in recent decades for its alarmist tone and inaccurate predictions. "Climate Depot" is a sub-website of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow which provides comprehensive information on climate news and related issues of environment. Its editor noted, "Ehrlich has had a few moments of candour in recent times and acknowledged his lack of basic scientific training" in some areas.

In October 2009 Ehrlich said: "I wish I'd taken more maths in high school and college. That would have been useful." He admitted that if he were writing The Population Bomb now, he'd be more careful about predictions. (See also Climate Depot's Factsheet on Overpopulation: "Is too few people the new 'population problem?'").

Pro-life initiatives

Ehrlich's admission about his lack of maths education may have come which has a birth rate hovering around 1.21 and with a median age of 43 has too few young people to reverse the birth decline, but there may be hope for Korea because besides the CBCK "New Life Project", there are a number of government and pro-life initiatives to decrease abortions.

- The birth-promotion program unveiled by the Korean government in 2006 had not done much to stem the decline, so the government has now decided to add to the incentives package to increase the birth rate and motivate more women to carry their pregnancies to term. Families with three or more children will be given special interest rates on their mortgages. There is also a proposal that the third-born child of a family be given an advantage in university entrance examinations, employment and financial support for high school and university tuition. (I am not sure I agree with the proposal of advantage in university entrance exams as it reeks of affirmative action and is unfair on the first two children of the family, not to mention other students).

- Dr Choi Anna and her colleagues held a news conference in November 2009 to ask "forgiveness" for having performed illegal abortions, and have since formed the group GYNOB which calls on other doctors to declare whether they have performed illegal abortions. Obstetrician and GYNOB member Dr Shim Sang-duk said the group's goal is to call attention to the hypocrisy of the unenforced abortion law and to end abortion in the country entirely.

There is little stigma attached to abortion in Korea which for decades encouraged the medical profession to provide abortion and contraception to Korean women for patriotic reasons. This was also a lucrative business for them. "We sold our soul for money," said Dr Choi. "Abortion was an easy way to make money. We see a tendency to have one perfect child and abort the rest. We had women demanding an abortion simply because they had taken cold medicine or drunk too much while pregnant."

GYNOB has held a rally and sent out flyers to 3,400 physicians asking for their participation in a national campaign to abolish illegal abortion. GYNOB states that the names of clinics participating in their campaign would be available online at

In a 2009 interview with Mercatornet, Seoul obstetrician and gynaecologist, Dr Shim, said the group's aim is to make working conditions for OB/GYNS better by eliminating abortions in the country. "The goal of our movement is a Korea without abortions and to eliminate all forms of abortion except when necessary to save the life of an expectant mother."

The group has a website which highlights those clinics that are abortion-free and recently sent information flyers to 3400 of the nation's doctors reminding them that the unborn child or "fetus" has a "dignity to live."

Dr Shim says he has no religious convictions that drive his work, but that he is determined that abortion must stop both for the good of the country and for physicians. He has faced death-threats for his work.

"Medical doctors exist for the benefit of our patients. It is not the other way around," said Dr Shim. "This is a fact we cannot deny. While we may be sacrificing money and prestige at this present moment, things will get better in the future for our country. Our actions will certainly contribute to the improvement of medical environments as well as the promotion of women's health in the days to come."

Shim attributed his own pro-abortion mentality in part to the Republic of Korea's former population-control policy that for decades encouraged the medical profession to provide abortion and contraception to Korean women for patriotic reasons. "I bought into the government's argument that it was OK to do this," Shim said. "It was good for the country. It boosted the economy."

"Over time, I became emotionless," Shim told the LA Times. "I came to see the results of my work as just a chunk of blood. During the operation, I felt the same as though I was treating scars or curing diseases."

Shim's ob-gyn clinic made one-quarter of its profits from performing abortions, and now that he has stopped performing them, he says that many patients have stopped seeing him and he may have to close his practice. Nevertheless he told the Times that without abortion, he feels like "a young doctor again."

Although the government has now abandoned its population control policy and has frantically moved in the opposite direction to save the nation from a self-inflicted demographic implosion that threatens to undermine the nation's economic and social survival, Shim's own conversion on the issue of abortion occurred through observing the behaviour of post-abortive mothers. He noted that most of these patients cried after abortion, but the tears disturbed him because they were quite unlike the tears of mothers after childbirth. "These were a different kind of tears," he said.

Shim performed his last abortion at the request of a longtime patient who begged him to kill her unborn child even though he had already stopped performing abortions. After giving her extensive counselling Shim relented, but the woman wept like the other post-abortive women Shim had seen, and that was the last time he broke his rule.

Patients who enter the lobby of Shim's clinic can read a sign which explains his new pro-life outlook and where he stands on abortion: "Abortions, which abandon the valuable life of a fetus, are misery for the nation and society as well as pregnant women, families and ob-gyn doctors."

Abortion is a profitable business for obstetricians in South Korea. Given the exceedingly low birthrate (1.19) and the nation's abortion mentality, the practice had become almost necessary from a financial point of view for 4,000-plus ob-gyn doctors, as anywhere from 43 percent to three-quarters of pregnancies end in elective abortion, not childbirth. The Ministry of Health gives official figures for abortion at 350,000 babies aborted per year, while deliveries amount to 450,000 babies per year.

However, a National Assembly inspection found in October that the number of Korean abortions could be much higher: 1.5 million per year. In fact, over a third of ob-gyn clinics are geared toward abortion. The Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimates that just 60 percent of ob-gyn clinics have the equipment to handle childbirth, while the number of operational ob-gyn clinics continues to decline steadily with over 200 clinics having closed between 2005 and 2008.

- Another group, Pro-Life Doctors, has been formed to encourage women to carry their pregnancies to birth and to encourage doctors to abandon the practice of abortion. The group plans to run a hotline to report clinics that perform illegal abortions and will report practitioners of such abortions to the police, according to a NY Times report.

Pro-life professors

- Korean professors formed a group called the "Pro-life Professors' Association" in December 2011. The group is a non-religious organisation that includes professors of medicine, mathematics, law, bioethics, music, and philanthropy. "We will try to promote the respect for life," said Martin Nam Myeong-jin, chairman of the association. "Beyond the religions, the matter of life is very important and we will exercise our influential power in taking away the trend that makes light of life," said Kim Joon-il, secretary of the association.

The group has asked the government to amend the Mother and Child Health Act so that the hundreds of thousands of illegal abortions will stop. The Pro-life Professors' Association also plans to contribute scientific study to support the pro-life movement.

"It's good to have such voluntary life movement organisations. It will be a good help to the Church's life movement," says Father Casimir Song Yul-sup.

Other developed nations facing similar demographic implosions to that of Korea need to take note of that country's pro-life initiatives, by government, church and secular organisations.

Babette Francis is the National & Overseas Co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc, and is grateful to Life-SiteNews for some of the information contained in this article.

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