By Melissa Salvatore
This is a story of my experience with abortion as an expat in Busan, South Korea. I understand this is a controversial issue, and I am neither trying to encourage nor discourage abortion to other women. I simply want to use my story as an example of having this experience here and to provide other women with options and resources available to them. It is said that abortion is one of the loneliest experiences a woman can ever go through. I want women here to know that they are not alone, and have support.
BUSAN, South Korea -- While abortion in South Korea is illegal, it is a widespread procedure with upwards of 350,000 abortions performed each year according to a government report. And while it is federally banned the procedure is performed safely in clinics and hospitals, both public and private everywhere. I had come across this contradiction while researching Busan prior to my arrival. I took note of the information with the hope that I would never find myself in such a situation.
No words I can write about the experience would adequately illustrate the shock, fear, and sorrow I experienced at that moment I discovered I was pregnant. I went on auto-pilot. I had recently heard of a local hospital which offered translation services for foreigners, and contacted them right away. The woman in charge of handling translation cases had me send her an email with my basic information and asked me to come in immediately. She was a godsend fore me, sticking with me and giving me support the whole way through.
I met with the doctor. An ultrasound was performed, confirming I was pregnant. Based on the dates of my last cycle, we determined that I’d conceived about three weeks earlier. I asked about abortion and at first – the doctor said it was illegal, then the translator said something to her in Korean and suddenly they were telling me how it could be done. There was initially a chance I would be referred elsewhere, but, in the end, the right strings were pulled and I was allowed to schedule an appointment for the following Saturday at the hospital. I still wasn’t sure I would go through with it, but knew that if I were to make that choice, I would want it done as soon as possible.
I contacted the father right away. I knew ultimately this would be my choice, but wanted to take his feelings into account, and hoped we could be on the same page. He tried hard to say the right thing and told me he would support me with whatever I decided. We spoke once the day I found out, and once after the pregnancy was terminated. Our phone conversations were peaceful and ended well. He said he was sorry for what I had to go through which was really important for me to hear, but in retrospect I think I allowed him to separate himself too much from the situation. He offered to help pay for the $500 in medical fees but never followed through, de-friended me on Facebook, and essentially cut off all ties.
While I understand why he disassociated himself, my concern is that cognitive avoidance is a major cause of risk-taking in sexual activity. Biology dictated that I had to confront the situation head-on, and from this I learned several lessons I have since applied to every facet of my life. My only wish for him is that he learned similar lessons, for his sake and especially the sake of his future sexual partners.
I felt like choosing whether or not to give life is the most powerful decision in the world, but also its greatest burden. It all fell to me, and either way my life was forever changed.
Coincidentally, during the weeks I was pregnant, I had gone on a strict training diet, was eating healthier than ever and had given up alcohol entirely. It was like my body was taking care of the fetus before I even knew it was there. For me, this choice came down to nurture over nature; my mind fighting my instinctual desire to keep it. In the end, I had to focus on what I believed would, at present, be the best thing for me to do. This was my life, and my chance to really take charge of it through this choice.
The surgery itself was horrible (although please note that since this happened I have corresponded with many women who had a more positive experience than I did). The woman in charge of foreigners/translations and a close friend were with me the whole way through, and I am eternally grateful to them for that. The doctor was a funny Korean man who tried to make me feel comfortable, but was also fascinated with my lady parts. He asked me why I chose to be hairless and if my vaginal piercing made sex more pleasurable as he poked at it.
He was the only doctor in the hospital who could perform the procedure, and since it was illegal, I felt like I had no choices when it came to anaesthetics and treatments. I had to trust that they knew what they were doing.
I was given a local anaesthetic, but was awake and felt everything, which was like my insides were being butchered. I was also in the Labor/Delivery unit, and therefore surrounded by expectant mothers, hearing babies being born as I ended my own pregnancy. At the time, I didn’t know that the fetus could not experience pain (nerve endings are only developed in the third trimester) and was petrified that it could feel what was happening. I sobbed uncontrollably while the doctor tapped my legs and told me to relax. I prayed. I said sorry a million times, I felt the weight of permanence in this decision and asked him to stop, knowing it was too late. It was like a scene out of a very graphic, sad movie, only it was real and I was living it.
The first two hours after surgery were painful and uncomfortable. By the time I left I felt okay. Physically the recovery was quick. I didn’t have to miss work nor did I experience any more pain, and it took about a month for my cycle and hormone’s to regulate. I went to a women’s clinic closer to my home with a wonderful woman doctor for follow-ups and there were no complications. Emotionally, it was more difficult for me to cope, especially when my hormone levels were still up. Over the phone, I sought out decision counselling before the abortion, as well as post-abortioncounselling through the following Canadian organizations:
Choice in Health: 416-975-9300; 1-866-565-9300; www.choiceinhealth.ca
Planned Parenthood Ottawa: 613-226-3234; www.ppottawa.ca
I highly recommend these to any foreigner women who become pregnant and need support. If you are not Canadian, I suggest seeking out similar resources from your own country/state (read this article: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/844997--deception-used-in-counselling-women-against-abortion and be sure to obtain background information/referrals on any organization you choose to consult) but if no such resources are available, then you can try to contact the ones I did. The first offers counselling by appointment and is very good for medically relevant information, while the second provides social support, but has phone counsellors available anytime during their office hours as well as email support. I was referred by them to this article http://pregnancyoptions.info/emotional&spiritual.htm which offers exercises that were extremely helpful in the process of making peace with my decision.
I published this article about four months after my abortion, and it has now been over six years since it all happened. I still think about it, but always knowing that I made the right choice for myself. Although the circumstances were not ideal, I thank my lucky stars that I was in a place where I had options, and that the procedure I chose was performed safely. I am also grateful for the counselling support I received from the above-mentioned organizations, and my close family of friends in Busan who I could confide in.
I want to especially give credit to Korean women. South Korea can be viewed as a patriarchal society, but I think women fight back from this by banding together through thick and thin. The bonds between women here are like nothing I have ever seen. I encountered many health care workers in this process and every woman nurse, receptionist, coordinator, pharmacist, and doctor was 100% sympathetic, respectful, and non-judgemental. Throughout the surgery, a nurse held my hand, dried my tears, and gave me comfort without being able to communicate through words.
I have now established a career supporting women in need because of those who helped me.
If you unexpectedly become pregnant while in South Korea, even when you are far away from your family, friends, and everything familiar to you, you are not alone. Whatever path you decide is best for you to take, you have support, you have options, and you have resources right here for you in Busan.
For any questions, support, or referrals you can contact me through firstname.lastname@example.org
An Abortions rights protest last year in Korea (read more at The Grand Narrative)