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TOKYO — If you are stationed in South Korea and have an abortion at an off-base health center, you are technically breaking South Korean law, military and local health officials say.

South Korean law prohibits abortion procedures except when the fetus has a genetic problem or disease or when the pregnancy may endanger the mother’s life, according to the Korean Ministry of Government Legislation.

Yet thousands of abortions are performed in South Korea each year. One comprehensive worldwide study in the mid-1990s put the country’s abortion rate at 19.6 abortions for every 1,000 women age 15 to 44. The same study found the U.S. rate to be 22.9 abortions for every 1,000 women in the same age group.

Explaining this contradiction between law and practice isn’t easy. Stars and Stripes, through a translator, contacted a handful of major hospitals and health clinics in Seoul and received denials about the availability of abortion procedures.

Yet when some of those same places were contacted by a person pretending to need an abortion, the caller was told to stop at the facility for a visit. When pushed, at least one clinic said the cost for the procedure started at 600,000 won, or about $644.

Voluntary abortions, those that terminate pregnancy as a choice rather than a medical necessity, are not provided at any U.S. military medical facilities. Therapeutic abortion procedures are performed in cases where the mother’s life is endangered, or in the case or rape or incest, according to U.S. Forces Korea spokesman David Oten.

Stateside, servicemembers may consider abortion options as allowed by state laws. Overseas, servicemembers, their family members and civilian military workers also may consider options off-base.

But it’s unclear what, if any guidance, military families may get when considering an abortion in another country. Multiple requests for interviews from military medical personnel and chaplains in Japan, South Korea and at the Pentagon went unanswered.

Servicemembers interviewed last week said they would feel comfortable going to their direct leaders if they needed advice.

“I would go to my chiefs for advice,” said Airman Abdul Aziz, who is assigned to the USS Kitty Hawk at Yokosuka Naval Base. “They always have really good advice and stories to help us (sailors) make decisions for ourselves.”

Another servicemember said she would seek advice from a chaplain.

“You could pretty much talk to a chaplain about anything, so you would get support as far as someone to talk to,” said Staff Sgt. Yolanda Smith, with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Aviation Regiment in South Korea. “I'm pretty sure the chaplain would provide support.”

There are serious consequences to consider, not the least of which is possible prosecution in South Korean courts.

Under current South Korean law, patients can face a year in jail or a fine up to 2 million won, or $2,146. Doctors performing the procedure also may face up to two years in prison.

“A servicemember or dependent who obtains an abortion at an off-post facility … would be violating Korean law and could be prosecuted by Korean authorities,” Oten wrote in an e-mail earlier this year in response to questions.

In Japan, the law allows for voluntary abortions, though each family must demonstrate the pregnancy and child would affect the economic situation of the family, according to Dr. Yoichiro Yanagita, the chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Tokyo Maternity Clinic.

He said that this requirement is easily met. “If the patient wants to have the abortion, they can,” he said.

Yanagita, also an adjunct at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, said patients considering abortions overseas should do their research first.

Japanese clinics will not take insurance as a means of payment. In general, abortions cost 100,000 to 200,000 yen, or about $838 to $1,676.

Also in Japan, the father of the fetus must also give consent for the procedure, according to Yanagita.

In South Korea, options aren’t as clear cut. Planned Parenthood in Suwon, near Seoul, said it could help Westerners who speak English. Another hospital, called Future and Hope in the Gangnam district of Seoul, said its staff would perform abortions up to the tenth week of pregnancy. For additional details, they asked for the pregnant woman to visit in person.

Hwang Hae-rym, Chris Fowler and Jimmy Norris contributed to this report.

Guam clinic caters to servicemembers

There is at least one place in the Pacific to go for an abortion, a place where servicemembers can stay on base and sometimes even take a military flight, according to a physician who performs the procedures.

The Guam Women’s Clinic has been open for more than two decades and about 10 percent of its business involves servicemembers or their dependents flying to the island to end their pregnancies, according to Dr. William Freeman, one of two doctors who perform abortions at the clinic.

“They have family counseling units on the bases and they have our names available as well,” said Freeman, whose clinic advertises in Stars and Stripes.

Military officials from bases throughout Korea and Japan declined to be interviewed for this story.

At the Guam clinic, most of the military patients are enlisted troops rather than officers, Freeman said. But he added that the clientele runs the gamut and reflects the clinic’s overall patient population. Some women are married, some in their 40s, some in their teens.

Freeman said he thinks the military community uses the clinic because of the cost. He said the clinic charges $760 for a first-trimester abortion.

Legal guidelines for abortions

Japan Abortion is allowed in the first 22 weeks if the family can give an economic reason to justify ending the pregnancy. The father must also agree to the procedure.

Source: Tokyo Maternity Clinic

Germany Abortion is prohibited, yet a woman who has an abortion during the first trimester will not be prosecuted if she undergoes counseling persuading her to carry the pregnancy to term. An abortion is legal if the pregnancy is the result of rape, or if completing the pregnancy would endanger the woman’s health. Doctors remain free from prosecution.

Source: The German Embassy in Washington, D.C.

South Korea With limited exceptions, abortion is prohibited. Yet many health facilities, including Planned Parenthood in Seoul, offer the procedure. Abortion is legal when either parent has genetic mental or physical illness, when either parent has a contagious disease, in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother’s life is endangered. All abortions are limited to the first 28 weeks of pregnancy and require the father’s consent.

Source: The Ministry of Government Legislation and U.S. Forces Korea

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