[Column] Grant women freedom and rights over their own bodies
» LeeAn Jiyoung.
Freedom of person is the heart of the modern concept of human rights. Freedom of person is an innate human right based on natural law, and if it cannot be guaranteed, it is impossible for any person to possess dignity and rights as a human being. For women, freedom of person includes not only the right to a body that is not infringed upon wrongly by institutions of power such as the state, but also the right to autonomous choice on matters related to her body in the reproductive process, including sexual relations, pregnancy, abortion, childbirth and child care. This is because the woman’s body is the location of the reproductive process.

Guaranteeing women the right to self-determination for their own bodies and the right of making choices during the entire reproductive process, including pregnancy, abortion, childbirth and child care, is important first and foremost because they are basic conditions for women to participate as equal members in every society. This is because women suffer constraints on their participation in society and their economic activity if they are unable to make their own choices on matters such as pregnancy and childbirth. In other words, restricting women’s abortion rights not only infringes upon their freedom of person and individual rights, but it also violates their right to equality by creating social conditions such that they are unable to participate as citizens equally with male citizens. It is within this context that 23 of the 30 nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have either legalized abortion or extended broad recognition to women’s abortion rights by including economic and social factors in their grounds for permitting abortion. The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, as well as many international human rights laws, recognize abortion as an issue of reproductive rights and an issue related to women’s safety.

Conversely, South Korea has recently seen a rapidly spreading movement going against this international tide. Beginning late last year, certain obstetricians’ groups such as GynOB and the Korean Prolife Doctors Association blustered that they would file complaints against doctors performing abortion procedures. In November 2009, the Presidential Council for Future and Vision said that it would resolve the social and policy issue of South Korea’s low birth rate by applying criminal law to crack down on abortions. And in releasing its “Comprehensive Plan for Preventing Illegal Artificial Pregnancy Terminations” on Monday, the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs presented measures centering on punishment, including the creation of a tip center to report doctors for performing abortions, without any measures of proper support for pregnancy and childbirth.

The idea of reducing abortions simply by strengthening criminal punishment of those involved, without any real measures for providing the socioeconomic conditions that would allow women the choice of carrying children to term, only has the effect of driving abortions underground and thus making them more expensive, as well as making it impossible for women to receive safely performed procedures. The result of this will not be a reduction in the number of abortions, as these opponents desire, but will force the women who do choose abortion to endure high costs and unsafe procedures.

As such, the abortion issue must be seen first and foremost as an issue of the freedoms and rights that a woman should possess over her own body in the reproductive process, and as an issue of the right to equality, the social condition that enables a woman to participate within a society as a citizen equal to men. It is of no help to isolate abortion as an issue and adopt the dualistic thinking that a woman who choses to have an abortion does not value life and a woman who chooses not to have an abortion does value life.

March 8 is the 102nd International Women’s Day. We still have a long way to go before women can rejoice in the freedoms and equal rights they have achieved over the past century. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we should take to opportunity to once again cry, “Grant women freedom and rights over their own bodies.”

The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.