SEOUL: South Korea, one of the few industrialised countries where abortion is largely illegal, has introduced tougher regulations on the procedure, prompting nearly 2,000 doctors to refuse to carry out terminations in protest.
Legally, the world's 11th-largest economy only allows abortion in cases of rape -- which must be proved by the woman -- incest and when the mother's health is at risk, in which case the partner's consent is required.
The ban is widely ignored, with abortions commonplace. A recent survey showed that one out of five women who have been pregnant have had an abortion, with only one percent saying they had a legal reason to terminate the pregnancy.
Under current legislation, women who have an abortion face a fine and a year in jail, while doctors who carry them out can get up to two years behind bars. The controversial law, which dates back to 1953, is currently under review at the Constitutional Court. But earlier this month the health ministry issued revised regulations toughening punishments for doctors. It enables medical authorities to suspend medical licences for one month without requiring a criminal conviction.
The ministry also listed performing an abortion as an "immoral medical action" -- along with sexually assaulting patients.
"We flatly refuse to carry out abortions, which the government has defined as an immoral medical action," said the Korean College of Ob & Gyn, which represents some 2,000 obstetricians and gynaecologists.
Its vice-chairman Lee Young-kyu told AFP that labelling the doctors as immoral was "simply appalling".
Patients who seek abortions were often poor or underage, she said, adding: "If women were forced to give birth in these circumstances, it puts a question mark on whether that is moral."
"We are not asking to legalise abortion," she said. "It's about giving pregnant women a right to choose."