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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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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.

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