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Where Have All the Children Gone?

Vanishing Korea

Nov 12, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 09 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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South Korea has a baby problem. It’s not alone, of course. Fertility rates have been falling in nearly every country in the world for years, and no industrialized nation today (save Israel) has a fertility rate at the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Yet even against this backdrop, the Republic of Korea stands out: Its fertility rate in 2012 was 1.23, not just one of the lowest numbers in the world but one of the lowest numbers ever recorded. To pick only one of the strange effects resulting from this relative barrenness, many of the country’s obstetrics practices have been converted to skin care or obesity clinics.

A young Korean girl

A young Korean girl


Koreans are having so few babies that the country is about to grow very old, very quickly. By 2050, there will be 10 million more Koreans over the age of 65 than between the ages of 15 and 65. By 2100, the country’s population, now 50 million, will fall to 21.5 million. And 9.5 million of those left will be over the age of 65. No economy can function in such conditions, and it is an open question as to whether a society can either.

But a lack of children isn’t Korea’s only baby problem. It also has a shortage of baby girls. In nature, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. From 1990 to 2002 in Korea, the ratio ranged between 110 and 117 boys born for every 100 girls. Which means that even as Koreans turned away from parenthood, they were positively shunning baby girls. The practice of sex-selective abortion—aborting a child because an ultrasound reveals her to be female—ran rampant in Korea, creating one of the most imbalanced sex ratios in the world.

This second problem—sex-selective abortion—now seems to be abating in Korea. Since 2003, Korea’s sex ratio has moved back toward the norm, falling to a nearly natural 107 in this past year. This change is important because while nations from China to India to Armenia have struggled with abortion-induced sex-ratio imbalances, Korea is the only such country to have succeeded in restoring balance.

Understanding this success is important, not just for moral and practical reasons—as Mara Hvistendahl makes clear in her landmark work on the subject, Unnatural Selection, sex-selective abortion is both evil and a cause of large-scale social problems. But the curious case of Korea is important for political reasons as well.

Sex-selective abortion has become the abortion movement’s most glaring vulnerability. An abortion regime that systematically results in the culling of girls is antithetical to feminism and an indictment of the logic of “choice.” It amounts to saying that you must be willing to accept the systematic killing of baby girls in order to protect their rights.

Americans on both sides of the abortion wars already understand this. Last spring Republicans in Congress proposed a bill outlawing sex-selective abortion, which is already observable among certain ethnic minorities in this country. The bill forced the abortion-rights lobby to take a side. They opposed it and actively campaigned against it on the grounds that “choice” must be sacrosanct. Even if
it meant allowing parents to choose to abort baby girls.

It was a small skirmish, and the bill eventually failed. But the subject of sex-selective abortion could return as more Americans learn about it, and might one day make a dent in the U.S. abortion regime, which is among the least regulated in the world. This makes Korea’s situation of particular interest: If the sex-selection tide can recede on its own, then defenders of unrestricted abortion rights might be able to avoid this fight.

Korea’s demographics have shifted at a fantastically rapid pace. In the early 1960s, the average Korean woman bore six children over the course of her life. Both the Korean and the U.S. governments viewed this as problematic, albeit for different reasons. The Korean regime thought that high fertility and population growth would blunt their attempts to modernize and establish an advanced economy. American planners were, in those years, obsessed with population growth in Asia, which they saw as a threat to global stability.

So in 1961, the Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea was established as a joint effort between Koreans and the United States. The new group worked closely with the government to launch a National Family Planning Program, the goal of which was to stop Koreans from having so many babies. It was a multipronged push. There was propaganda, with the government warning citizens, “Unplanned parenthood traps you in poverty” and “Sons or daughters, stop at two and raise them well.” Efforts were made to increase women’s enrollment in high school. Contraceptives were handed out freely to anyone who would take them. Men were exempted from mandatory military service if they submitted to vasectomies.

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