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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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This academic explanation was comforting because it suggested that the path out of the valley of sex-selective abortion is an easy one: feminism, modernity, education, and government guidance. If societies would just become more liberal, they could escape the trap. No difficult choices need be made. And the abortion-rights framework of “choice” could endure.

But the true story is more complicated and, for defenders of abortion, more troublesome. For starters, one of the bedrock shifts in Korea over the last 30 years has been the country’s religious composition. Since 1985 the percentage of Koreans calling themselves Christians has risen by half, from 20 percent to 30 percent of the population, making Christians the country’s largest religious group. (Interestingly, the converts haven’t come from the ranks of Buddhists and Confucians—they’re almost all former atheists. Since 1985, the percentage of other religions remained constant, while Christians increased, and the number of unbelievers dropped.) With the rise of Christian culture has come a greater willingness to view abortion as an evil. President Lee Myung-bak’s campaign against abortion was one of his most popular programs. And when a court in 2010 held that the unborn were human beings due the same slate of legal protections as the born, the ruling wasn’t seen as scandalous or abnormal. The influence of Christianity, however, is difficult to quantify. Because Korea doesn’t have accurate numbers on abortion, we have no way of knowing whether Korean Christians have changed the aggregate outcomes through their own behavior.

What we can say with more certainty is that the rate of sex-selective abortion seems to have decreased as the overall fertility rate has collapsed. In other words, -Koreans aren’t aborting girls as much as they used to because they aren’t bothering to get pregnant as much in the first place. Which means that the “cure” for sex-selective abortion in Korea may be just another symptom of their larger demographic disease.

Just before the old Korean fertility regime finally collapsed in the 1980s, most women had two babies. In those days the sex-ratio for first births was reasonably normal; the big deviation came from higher-order births. In 1989, for example, the sex ratio for first births was 104. For second births it was 113. For third births it was 185. And for fourth births it was 209, at which point the rate can be seen as almost a fanatical demand for a son.

Today that pattern is truncated. In 2011 the number of boys was skewed (109), while the number at second births was exactly average (105). What seems likely is that the marginal sex-selective abortions of the past have been converted not to births, but rather to nonpregnancies. The people who once had a strong preference for sons no longer want any child badly enough to have a second, and certainly not a third or fourth. With those people dropping out of the pool, the only folks willing to have a second child are the ones who don’t care whether they get a boy or a girl.

You can see the entire shift in Korean childbearing in the numbers of women who remain childless for their whole lives. In the mid-1970s, when Korea’s fertility rate was still quite high (5.42), the percentage of women who completed their childbearing years childless was very low—1.5 percent. As late as the 1990s, the rate of childlessness for Korean women remained in the neighborhood of 4 percent, while only 9 percent finished with 1 child, 50 percent finished with 2 children, and 27 percent finished with 3 children.

What’s happened since then is nothing short of astounding. Demographer Minja Kim Choe of the East-West Center has run the numbers and concluded that by 2005 Korean women were completing their childbearing years with the following result: Nearly 25 percent were childless, 21 percent had 1 child, 48 percent had 2 children, and just 8 percent had 3 children.

Correlation is not causation, of course. But these numbers leave us with only two plausible scenarios to explain the remission of sex-selective abortion: (1) that the government, which has spent the last 20 years trying to influence the fertility behavior of its people by attempting to coax them into having more babies—to no discernible effect—was suddenly able to persuade Koreans to abandon their preference for sons, or (2) that the decline of fertility to historic lows—the single most salient fact about Korean life—has led to a people so indifferent to parenthood that they don’t much care whether they have a son or a daughter or neither.

The answer is probably some of each. The good news is that modern enlightenment almost certainly does have something to do with causing people to rethink their ideas of family life. But the bad news is that it is almost certainly insufficient to curb the scourge of sex-selective abortion. 

For abortion-rights advocates there will be no easy way out. Either “choice” is sacrosanct—even if it means targeting baby girls for abortion. Or it isn’t.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. His book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (Encounter) is forthcoming in February.

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