The group’s decision was announced in response to the ministry’s latest law revision, which enables the authorities to suspend a medical license for one month for performing an abortion. South Korea is one of the few developed economies where abortion is illegal except in instances of rape, incest or when the mother’s health is at risk.
The new rule went into effect on Aug. 17, and on the same day, abortion was included in the list of what the government legally defines as “immoral medical actions,” along with dispensing medications past their date of expiration and committing sexual harassment against patients, among other actions.
"Immoral medical action"
The Health Ministry announced the new rule shortly after the Constitutional Court said earlier this month that it would indefinitely delay its ruling on the abortion ban, citing a recent judiciary reshuffle as the main reason.
In addition to the latest penalty, doctors are subject to two years in prison for performing the procedure, although prosecution has been rare.
“For many doctors who run their own clinics, having their license suspended for a month means potentially going out of business,” Kim told reporters at a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday.
“The new rule also aims to stigmatize gynecologists who perform the procedure as ‘immoral.’ We think this is extremely unfair -- especially when there is public debate going on, and many say that this procedure should be legalized for many valid reasons."
In an ironic twist, he said the members of the group are complying with the laws as a "way to resist" against the government's decision. The doctors won't be performing the procedure, which is in high demand, especially among vulnerable women, as a "form of protest" -- or a strike -- until the Health Ministry considers removing the new penalty on doctors.
The abrupt unavailability of the specific medical procedure in clinics, which had been very common in spite of being illegal, would cause undesirable consequences for many women and their families, he added.
"And again, this is what the government wants, and they will have to face responsibility for these," Kim said.
Not all physicians in the country endorsed the decision made by the Korean College of Ob & Gyn. Human Med, a group of liberal-leaning medical professionals, said refusing to perform the procedure as a means of protest only puts more women's health at risk.
"The ability to receive abortion care without delay is critically important to women's reproductive health, as having later abortions can pose a higher risk," Human Med said in a statement.
"Knowing this, physicians protesting against the government's decision by going on a 'strike' only makes matters worse for women (in need of abortions). If the members of the Korean College of Ob & Gyn truly wants to protest the newly introduced laws, they should first empathize with those who will be affected by them the most -- women (who cannot access safe and affordable abortions)."
Moon Sul-hee, a pro-choice, women’s rights activist, also said while she understands the Korean College of Ob & Gyn's stance, it is not ideal to use women’s health and their reproductive choice as bargaining chips.
“Rather than focusing on their own interests, I hope doctors can talk more about how to secure women’s rights to health and health care,” she told The Korea Herald.
3,000 abortions a day
Under articles 269 and 270 of South Korea’s Criminal Act, any woman who undergoes an abortion could face one year of imprisonment or a fine of up to 2 million won ($1,807).
Although the law, which was implemented in 1953, has been only sporadically enforced, many women’s activists in the country have been calling for legalization of abortion. Last year, more than 230,000 Koreans signed a petition to the presidential office to abolish the law.
In spite of the current ban, studies show that abortion is common in South Korea. A survey by the Korean Women’s Development Institute showed that 1 in 5 Korean women who have been pregnant have had an abortion. Only 1 percent said they had legal reasons -- such as rape and incest -- to undergo the procedure.
According to a study by the Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, some 3,000 abortions are performed daily in the country.