Abortion has suddenly become a hot topic in South Korea after years of near-indifference, with a group of doctors seeking a crackdown on pro-life grounds and the government eager to boost the birthrate.
The procedure -- officially outlawed in most cases -- has for decades been widely tolerated as successive administrations sought to control population growth in the crowded nation.
AdvertisementMore than 340,000 abortions were conducted in 2005, according to the latest health ministry survey.
Some 95 percent of them were illegal under a widely flouted law permitting abortions up to 24 weeks only if the mother's health is in danger, the foetus is malformed or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.
The debate was rekindled last month when a group calling itself Pro-Life Doctors filed a report with prosecutors against three hospitals that carried out illegal abortions.
Media reports say the group has 600 members, about 20 percent of the country's obstetricians, although it declines to disclose figures.
"We believe the unborn child's life must come first and that women's happiness can never come from aborting a child," said Shim Sang-Duk, head of the group's ethics committee, in emailed comments to AFP.
"Unless the mother's health is in danger, we are against abortion for any reason. The law already prohibits (most) abortions so enforcement is the problem."
This month the health ministry announced its own crackdown, for pragmatic as well as moral reasons.
Past birth control campaigns have worked so well that officials increasingly fret about the economic and social costs of a rapidly ageing society.
Under the new approach, the ban on most abortions will be enforced and the ministry will set up a call centre for the reporting of illegal operations.
It will offer counselling for women considering a termination as well as limited financial support for young unwed mothers.
Campaigners on both sides of the debate say more help is needed.
"If authorities want to do something to raise the birthrate, they should make strenuous efforts to ease the burden of childcare rather than cracking down on abortionist doctors all of a sudden," a Korea Herald editorial commented.
Some activists say the crackdown violates women's rights.
"Abortion for social and economic reasons must be tolerated," they said in a statement during a protest last Friday in advance of International Women's Day.
The stigma and economic difficulties single mothers face in a conservative society is one reason for the high abortion rate, experts believe.
A lack of sex education and social pressure on women not to actively practise contraception also plays a part.
"People do feel guilty about abortion but behind such an extreme choice, there is pressure from social prejudice," said Kim Hye-Young, the head of the Korea Women's Development Institute.
"When I interview the parents of unwed mothers, almost all of them told their daughters to get an abortion," she said. "This clearly shows society's prejudice against unwed mothers."
The 2005 health ministry survey showed 42 percent of those undergoing an abortion were unmarried.
Pro-Life Doctors believes that enforcing the law will deter illegal abortions and give expectant mothers time to think about the issue. But it also says social attitudes and policy should change.
"In the long term it is important to change society to one in which women will want to give birth. Policies need to be prepared," said Shim.
Some experts are worried about the effect of the crackdown.
Byun Hea-Joung, a counsellor and professor at Sogang University, said the cost of an abortion had risen from 300,000 won (264 dollars) to three million won and would continue to increase.
"The rich will still be able to have the surgery performed, but otherwise not," she said.
Women's rights activist Kim Doo-Na said many abortions stem from socio-economic difficulties.
"Not solving the fundamental issue first and banning abortion will have the side effect of women getting abortions from unprofessional operators," she said.
"And, of course, abortion rates will not go down."