Trying to satisfy the empty womb
Despite this, the campaign succeeded. By the late 1970s, the yearly population growth rate had fallen from the 3 percent of the 1950s to 1.9 percent. By 2003, the number was down to 1.17 percent ― or one baby per family ― creating a new problem.
Over the course of three decades, Korean women went from having too many children to not having enough.
To make matters worse, as the birth rate decreases, the rate of infertility is rising. One out of every seven married couples cannot have babies due to infertility ― 1.4 million couples, according to the latest ministry statistics from 2000.
“Compared to the 1990s, the rate of infertility has almost doubled,” said Hyun Jin-song, the chief doctor at Bucheon Seoul Women’s Hospital’s infertility clinic, who delivered the first test-tube baby in the Incheon area in August 1992. She said that there is no single, clear reason for this, but that most experts agree that late marriages (compared to previous decades) are one key factor.
“Now marriage in one’s thirties is commonplace. Also, as women are climbing the social ladder, many couples decide to defer having children, often until after the woman is 35 or older,” she said. “Generally, we [infertility experts] say that one’s ability to reproduce drops by one-third after one reaches 35.”
Other reasons the doctor cites are stress, eating habits (high-fat, high-sugar foods can interfere with fertility), pollution and endocrine disruptors, which are toxins found in things like pesticides and PCBs that impede the function of hormones.
“Many times the stress of not being able to have a baby and coming to get medical treatment causes more stress for patients, which is a vicious cycle,” said Dr. Hyun.
Park Chun-seon opened up about the stress and mental instability one feels when receiving infertility treatments.
“It’s a fight everyday,” said Ms. Park, who after 10 years of marriage does not have a baby. “I’ve been through serious depression. I shied away from contact with other people and blamed myself.”
She is also the head of Agaya (www.agaya.org), a nongovernmental organization for infertile parents founded in 2001. There are currently 13,000 members. Ms. Park said that there are three main issues every infertile parent faces ― financial, mental and physical pressure.
“The hardest aspect for me was the mental stress and aggravation I faced. This was harder than getting shots or keeping in top physical condition for treatments. I had to fight feeling like a failure,” she said.
“The hardest part of not being able to have a child was facing my parents and my husband’s parents,” said Ms. Lee, a pseudonym for a woman who wished to remain anonymous, sitting at the waiting area at the Bucheon Seoul Women’s Hospital with her husband. “They didn’t pressure us or anything but it was more about us [the couple] being sorry that we couldn’t produce grandchildren for them.”
As she looked at her husband, he gently laid his hand on her arms and said, “It was a difficult time for her.”
One of the causes of stress for many women who are infertile is that they blame themselves ― even though the cause of infertility might be something else.
“If a couple is infertile, many times the woman is blamed. This is especially true in Korea,” Ms. Park said.
Yun Tae-gi, the chief doctor at CHA General Hospital, one of the first hospitals to create an infertility clinic in Korea, said that he and other infertility experts agree that generally, the problem lies with the man 40 percent of the time, a much higher percentage than what the general public is aware of.
Besides the unstable mental conditions, a big problem haunting many couples are the financial demands of treating infertility.
Dr. Hyun said one in vitro fertilization costs 2.5 million won (about $2,700). An average couple needs three to four treatments to successfully conceive, she said.
Last year, the government started to step in to show support by partially paying for IVF. Before last year, the Korean government did not provide any financial support for IVF or artificial insemination, although they provided a minimum amount of medical insurance for other, basic clinical treatments including fertility pills and exams. Around 16,000 people received the benefit in 2006.
“We went through five years of trying to have a baby. Compared to others, it didn’t cost us a lot because I got pregnant [through IVF] when the government gave partial financial coverage for IVF treatment,” said Ms. Lee.
Ms. Park feels that her organization is somewhat responsible for this positive development. “We gathered around 8,500 signatures in 2005 [from people asking] the government to get involved in this issue. Because infertility is not seen as ‘life threatening,’ the government didn’t offer financial support to those seeking treatment,” she said.
She hopes that this support will continue. “This will help parents, and not just financially speaking,” she said.
For couples who decide to give up or are thinking of giving up, adoption crosses their check list of options at least once. “[Using] surrogate mothers and adoption, although the numbers are increasing, are still not that popular in Korea compared to other countries,” said Ms. Hyun.
Ms. Park adds that adoption is increasingly becoming an option that many couples are contemplating, including herself. “I plan to adopt sometime this year or next year,” she said.
On the other hand, Ms. Lee, now 18-weeks pregnant, said that she and her husband wanted to have a natural birth. “I’m relieved that this is over and hope [my husband and I] can now lead a normal life.”
By Cho Jae-eun Staff Writer [email@example.com]