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 -- At the time I lived in South Korea, abortion was (and may still be) illegal, but also a widespread procedure performed safely in cilics ad hospitals everywhere, with upwards of 350,000 abortions performed each year according to a government report. I had come across this information while researching Busan prior to my arrival. I took note 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 that offered English translation services, and contacted them right away. The woman in charge of handling such 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. A vaginal 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, and then de-friended me on Facebook.
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. 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 day of the surgery, I had to provide written authorization from the father to be able to have the procedure. Since he lived in a different city, he verbally consented for my friend to sign on his behalf. At the hospital, the woman who provided English translation services 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 man who tried to make me feel comfortable, but also asked me why I chose to be hairless and whether 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 although I wish I had more options and fewer language barriers to work through, I was comforted by how the staff seemed entirely accostomed to performing or assisting in abortions. My impression was that this was something that was done regularly. I importantly felt assured that the procedure was being performed safely.
The surgery itself was honestly horrible (although since this happened I have corresponded with many women who had much more positive experiences than I did). 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 embryo 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. 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 elevated and fluctuating. Over the phone, I sought out decision counselling before the abortion, as well as post-abortion counselling, and was referred to articles and exercises that supported my healing process.
I highly recommend that women in need of such support seek out similar resources (being mindful that some organizations will present as being comprehensive in their "options" counselling services when they are in fact anti-abortion and will provide false information in their consultations).
Here are some reputable, non-judgemental resources that will provide genuine support and accurate information:
- All-options (based in the United States and has a few programs including a pro-choice faith-based counselling service)
- Planned Parenthood (based in Ontario, Canada)
- Choice in Health (based in Ontario, Canada)
- British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Based in the UK)
- Women Help Women and WomenOnWeb are two online information/support hubs you can consult as well
I published this article about four months after my abortion, and it has now been over ten 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 was able to access abortion services, and that the procedure 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. The bonds between women I experienced with friends I made, and witnessed between others, during my time in Busan, were remarkable. 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 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)