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.
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.
The plan succeeded wildly. In a single generation Korea’s fertility rate dropped by more than half, from 6.0 to 2.8. In 1981, the government set its goal as a fertility rate of 2.0. It offered economic incentives for parents who were sterilized after a second birth and, for a brief period, even encouraged a one-child policy. (The public service announcements proclaimed, “Even two children per family are too many for our crowded country.”) In just two years, Korea achieved its mark.
But this success was fleeting. The fertility rate kept falling—so fast and so far that it quickly became clear that the government had lost control of its program. By 2000, the rate had bottomed out at 1.2, causing the government to scramble to undo its prior work. It offered early retirement for parents with multiple children. It provided financial support for the education of third children and offered special mortgages for families with three children. It created a government agency to deal with shrinking populations and encourage procreation. None of it worked.
And in the midst of all this clamor, the Koreans realized they suddenly had another problem. The monster of sex-selective abortion had been unleashed.
Abortion has never been a particularly controversial part of Korean life. When it was written, the 1953 Korean Criminal Code expressly outlawed abortion in most cases and established substantial penalties for both mothers (up to a year in jail and a $1,700 fine) and doctors (up to five years in jail and the loss of medical license) involved in abortions. There were explicit exemptions—in cases of rape and incest, for pregnancies resulting in serious genetic disorders, and for the health of the mother. But these mattered very little because the laws were rarely enforced.
In fact, beginning in 1960 the Korean government actively encouraged abortion as part of its family planning program. Every year there are somewhere between 350,000 and 2 million abortions in South Korea, depending on where you shop for your data. No one knows the real number because, since almost all abortions are illegal, nearly the entire industry is a gray market. Suffice it to say that Korea has either the third-highest abortion rate in the world, or the highest. Two other numbers lend perspective: There are just 450,000 births per year in Korea. And between 2005 and 2009 a total of 17 doctors were indicted for violating abortion law.
In the 1970s, as ultrasound technology became widely available, Koreans began aborting baby girls at a disproportionately high rate. By 1975, there were 108.1 boys being born for every 100 girls, slightly above the 105 norm. By 1990 the ratio was 112.5, and climbing. It peaked for a number of years at an obscenely unnatural 117 boys being born for every 100 girls. The government was so unsettled by this development that in 1987 it passed a law making it illegal for doctors to reveal the sex of a baby in utero to the parents. Nearly 20 years later the law was struck down by Korea’s high court, but that decision was a technicality. Like the abortion laws, the gender-revelation law was rarely enforced. Between 2004 and 2008, only two doctors were convicted of violating it.
Nonetheless, in 2003 Korea’s sex ratio began dropping and by 2008 it had reverted to a nearly normal 106.4. It was the first good demographic news for Korea in a generation—and the first reversal of sex-selective abortion anywhere in modern times. This has led to an urgent search to understand what went right.
The first explanation, put forth by academics, is that the Korean people changed their attitudes toward baby girls owing to a combination of governmental cajoling and the enlightenment that results from modernization.
The government has undertaken various measures to stymie sex-selective abortion in recent years. In addition to the anti-ultrasound law, a moral case was made against abortion itself. (Posters for one such campaign warned, “With abortion, you are aborting the future.”) Even the medical community took part; gynecologists and obstetricians formed a lobby to pressure abortion providers to cease offering the procedure.
The government also made efforts to change Korea’s blatantly patriarchal society, in which either the father or the eldest son was legally recognized as the family head, inheritance passed through the male line, and children were awarded to fathers by default in cases of divorce. In 2005 Korea’s courts and legislature began reforming family law to make it much more equitable. The result of all of this is that surveys of Korean women showed a marked decline in the percentages who strongly prefer sons to daughters. Other research showed that as women’s education and employment status increased, their preference for sons decreased. So score one for government intervention and modern enlightenment.
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.