I Had An Abortion In South Korea, Where It’s Still Illegal: BUST True Story

by Sara Kim

In February of 2008, while living in Seoul, I found out that I was four months pregnant. I was in a committed relationship and had been taking birth control pills as our chosen form of contraception. As in many monogamous relationships, my boyfriend and I had unprotected sex regularly, assuming that the pills would keep me from getting pregnant.

I first suspected I might be pregnant a few weeks after I actually was (according to the math my gynecologist and I did later). I went to a clinic recommended to me by several people in the expat neighborhood of Itaewon, where my urine pregnancy test incorrectly came out negative, which is very much possible for a number of reasons. (Basically, a pregnancy test measures for a hormone called hCG, which is produced not when the egg becomes fertilized but after the fertilized egg actually implants into the uterine wall; the placenta of your fetus is what produces this hormone. Implantation normally occurs “6 to 12 days after fertilization. Within a few days, membranes surrounding the tiny embryo begin secreting hCG into the mother’s blood. A blood test can detect hCG about 9 to 15 days after fertilization, but it takes a few more days for hCG…to appear in the urine. In a study published in the April 2005 issue of ‘Fertility and Sterility,’ of 63 women in early stages of pregnancy, [hCG] appeared in urine samples about 6 days after it could be measured in blood, or by 2 1/2 to 3 weeks after fertilization.”)

I expressed my doubt about the test results to the doctor, and he declared to me in an arrogant tone, “I’m 99% sure you’re not pregnant!” (If only I’d known then about pregnancy tests what I know now.) So I went on about my life, but over the course of several weeks, something was definitely off, but, of course, it was only obvious in retrospect. 

At the time, I thought I was just having hunger cravings. With that said, looking back, it’s almost creepy to think about how my body would walk itself up to food stands and tables full of dessert. I’ve always been very conscious of what I eat, never snacking in between meals unless I was famished. I had been exercising several times a week since I was 15, purposely trying to maintain a certain shape and size. So, again, only in retrospect did I realize that I’d been bodysnatched  — by myself — as I tried force myself to provide more nourishment than I was doing, without my mind understanding what was happening.

I’d been bodysnatched — by myself. 

Then, one night, I finally knew I was pregnant when I was at the gym. Just as I was laying down onto a decline bench to do decline sit-ups (so that my knees were higher than my head), I suddenly felt something inside my uterus shift. Right then, I immediately knew there was a fetus inside of me. I don’t mean that the fetus moved any of its body parts but, rather, that it shifted as one mass from the bottom of my uterus to the top (since I was practically laying upside down).

The next day I bought an at-home pregnancy test, which came out positive, then made an appointment to see an OBGYN at a Yonsei University Severance Hospital, one of the oldest and most respected hospitals in Seoul. The day of my appointment, they gave me another urine pregnancy test, which, of course, at this point also came out positive. I told the doctor that I’d been taking birth control pills yet still had gotten pregnant to which she said, “Don’t worry. I also became pregnant with my daughter when I was on birth control pills, and she’s healthy and 13 years old now. Your child will be fine.”

There was no way I would be bringing a child into this world, but I didn’t say anything. I decided I would wait to say something if they continued on assuming that I was on a path to parenthood. Next, she said I needed to have an ultrasound to see how far along the fetal development was, but advised it would be cheaper if I did it at a different OBGYN instead of there at the university hospital.

I ended up going to a respected OBGYN in Seoul’s Hannam-dong neighborhood. At the appointment, the technician poured cold ultrasound gel on my lower abdomen and looked at the fetus on the monitor. After a few moments she said, “There is something wrong with this baby. This baby…has no brain.” My body let out an animal-like shriek that I had no idea was even about to come out, and my hands flew up to my face to cover my mouth. It was like I was having an out-of-body experience, standing next to my body, watching myself.

It turned out that my fetus was about 16 weeks old, and I can only assume that its anencephaly (congenital absence of a brain) was due to the carefree life I had been living like any independent, working young adult. Several times a week, I would drink multiple glasses of red wine or whatever drink I pleased, and sometimes I’d smoke cigarettes along with or in between my drinks, characteristic of the life of so many twenty-somethings.

Although I was in a committed relationship with another 25-year-old, it was only months old, and neither of us had really figured out what we were doing with our lives. I certainly was not planning on getting married or having a child at that time, and with that said, the anencephaly turned out to be a blessing in disguise since in South Korea abortions are still illegal. Because “fetal impairment” is one of the acceptable grounds for having an abortion, I was legally allowed to have the procedure.

The anencephaly was also a reason why no one could tell I was pregnant even though I was four months along. Because the fetus hadn’t developed properly, I looked like I’d gained about five pounds, but that was about all.

The head gynecologist immediately got on the phone with Cha Hospital, one of the best fertility hospitals in the country, in Seoul’s Gangnam district. Forty-eight hours later, my boyfriend and I found ourselves there for the abortion.

When it was time for the procedure, a nurse stuck an IV into my left arm, which dripped the chemicals into me that would induce me into labor. They explained that my cervix needed to soften and then dilate so that I could give birth to my fetus. After some time, my water broke, then the contractions started. (As someone who’s had part of my ponytail ripped out during gymnastics and a cavity drilled without any novocaine at my request, I can honestly say contractions are some of the most painful sensations I’ve ever experienced.) They started coming about every three minutes, and the nurses told me that every time this happened, I needed to push in order to push the fetus out of me. But, of course, if you’ve never been in labor before, knowing what it actually means “to push” is impossible. Every time a contraction occurred, I did what I thought was pushing, but a few times I ended up just taking a shit into the bedpan underneath me.

It was exhausting. And more so than that it was scary since I thought I was pushing correctly, but nothing was happening. As the contractions would subside for a cycle, I was all too aware that they’d come right back just two or three minutes later and that I had to be composed enough and have enough energy to try to push it out. When they would start again, I’d try to push, then nothing, then they’d come back again, and I’d try to push again, and, again, nothing. All I could do was breathe deeply and concentrate, keeping myself steady and getting ready for the next set of contractions. Finally, finally, one of the times they came back around, I pushed correctly, and I gave birth to my fetus. It happened so quickly that the fetus suddenly popped right out of me, and there it was, laying on the table. I looked at it out of the bottoms of my eyes just enough to notice that its skin color was a beautiful caramel color, an exact blend of my boyfriend’s and mine. I purposely didn’t look at it very closely or for very long to try to avoid causing myself any deeper trauma. The nurses cut the umbilical cord, wrapped up the deformed fetus, and took it away.

They wheeled me into another room where the doctor removed the rest of the umbilical cord from my uterine wall, which was also very painful. They asked me if they wanted to do a chromosome analysis to which I said no, my reasoning being, “I know why that fetus was deformed. I didn’t know I was pregnant and was drinking and smoking like any other 25-year-old.” I was ashamed. They relocated me to a recovery room upstairs where I slept for the next 24 hours. My boyfriend took the other bed in the room, which was empty, wheeled it over next to mine, and slept next to me while I rested.

After we left the hospital, my boyfriend took care of me at his apartment for the next few days. I slept and slept, and he cooked for me and made sure I was okay. Because I had actually given birth, my breasts even produced milk, so every time I took my bra off, there were milk stains where my nipples had pressed up against the cups. A few times, I sat in my boyfriend’s bed topless, feeling my new breasts, watching to see if more milk would come out. On one of my trips to the bathroom, I also noticed that a dark line had appeared on my stomach, running vertically from my belly button to my pubic bone. I found out later that this is referred to as a “linea negra” and had appeared because of the chemical changes my body had experienced.

I went on about my life without telling a soul. Even though I was relieved and felt grateful to have had the abortion, I was in shock and too emotionally drained to conjure up enough energy to explain to even my closest friends what had happened. My plan was to never mention it to anyone and go on about my life.

I went on about my life without telling a soul.

Which was going fine until a few months later when my native Korean roommate from Daegu said to me one day, “Those brown spots you have under your eyes, that appears on women’s faces when they have a baby.” Creeped out that she knew I’d given birth just by looking at my face, I jumped on the Internet and realized that she was referring to my “mask of pregnancy” (known as both melasma and chloasma). The spots had appeared on my face because my estrogen levels had increased significantly while I was pregnant, creating excess melanin and making any darker patches of skin on my body even darker. Not only was it the reason those brown patches had appeared under my eyes, but it was also why the “linea negra” had appeared on my stomach.

At this point, I only saw my parents once a year when they flew to Seoul to visit me and our relatives. But I imagined seeing my parents the next time, and my mother immediately knowing I’d had an abortion once I took off all my makeup before bed. I refused to let this happen, so after some research, I ended up starting laser treatment with a dermatologist in Seoul’s Hongdae neighborhood, and I went back every few weeks until it was light enough that no one could notice.

I continued on with my original plan of never mentioning the abortion. But eventually I did feel that I needed to talk to others who would understand; it was becoming more and more unhealthy to carry the secret around with me as if it had never happened. I needed to talk to others who had been through the same thing, to admit that it was real, that we are just some of 40 million women in the world who have abortions every year. (In the US, around one million women have abortions every year; breaking those numbers down further, one in every four American women will have an abortion by the age of 30 and at least half will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45. In South Korea, the number of abortions every year is estimated to be around 300,000.)

Abortion gif

When I moved from Seoul to New York City in 2011 after having been gone from the US for almost five years, one of the first things I did was find an abortion support group that met weekly in Midtown. It was so healing to finally tell my story to other women who had also had an abortion. The biggest reason I hadn’t told anyone before was that I hadn’t been looking to make a confession; I’d needed to tell others who I knew understood my pain while offering whatever support I could give them in return.

Also, once I started receiving health care in New York (about three years after my abortion), it forced me to continue facing my demons. At every appointment, the new patient’s questionnaire always asked the question, “Have you ever had surgery before?” It was difficult at first, but I forced myself every time to write, “Yes, I had a chemically-induced abortion in 2008.” So it started with a general checkup at the physician’s office, and after that, the gynecologist, then the dentist, then the dermatologist, then the urgent care clinic, and so on.

The more I admitted it to myself, Irealized that doctors were not judging me at all, and thought about how so many other women—I’ll say it again: 40 million women every year around the world—had also had abortions, I finally starting telling my close friends. They were so supportive, and the ones who had also had abortions opened up to me about their experiences.

The question at this point is not about whether or not it’s right or wrong, it’s about how safe the procedure can be. Forty million women every single year are not going to stop having abortions. If you make it illegal, it’ll just go underground, or the woman will just fly to another country to have the procedure done. And, unfortunately, as it stands, about 50% of all abortions worldwide are unsafe, meaning they are “carried out either by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment that does not conform to minimal medical standards, or both.”

I wanted to share my story because eight years later, I feel incredibly lucky that I had access to a safe abortion. Even through my trauma, as I was laying in my hospital bed in Seoul, I wasn’t worried that anything bad would happen to me, that I might die; in fact, I felt relief knowing that I was in good hands. After eight years of thinking about what I went through, reading countless statistics and accounts of brilliant women like Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Stevie Nicks, Kathleen Hanna, Margaret Cho, Whoopi Goldberg, and others who went through what I went did, I have no more shame. In fact, I am proud that medicine has become so advanced that we’re able to perform such a complicated procedure while minimizing harm to women’s bodies and lives. I feel so lucky that having an abortion is an option that countless women and I were able to turn to and an option that hundreds of millions more—billions more eventually—will need to use. Also, until I had my abortion, I had never really thought about how far medical technology had come, what an abortion procedure itself actually entails (depending on what procedure is performed), and how safe it can be (depending on what country you’re in, how developed the fetus is, and other factors).

I can guarantee that if I’d been forced to have that child (if the fetus hadn’t been deformed), we would both be struggling. And what of the father who I’d had no intention of settling down with?

To take it even further, so many children do come from loving homes where the births were very much planned out, and the parents were very intentional with their plans, yet life was/is still incredibly difficult for everyone involved. This pro-life mentality that you should just have the baby is so strange in that it only seems to place importance on up to the moment of birth itself and doesn’t take into account what that baby’s quality of life will be, especially when they were not planned for.

Yes, life can be amazing, I have incredible family and friends, and I can genuinely say that I’m happy. But it’s been a long, hard road getting here, and, with that said, no one will disagree that life is hard.

And let’s be honest: if men could also get pregnant, they would absolutely want access to safe abortions.

Image and gif via URGE

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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