An increasing number of young married couples are looking at fertility problems. According to data the Chosun Ilbo obtained from the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service, 194,405 people received treatment for infertility problems last year, up 28 percent from 2004, when it was 151,981. And 90 percent of the patients were in their 20s and 30s.
Over the same period, there was a 41.3 percent increase in the number of Koreans in their 30s receiving treatment for infertility (81,818 in 2004 and 115,589 last year), while the number of such patients in their 20s rose 8.5 percent (53,387 and 57,925).
Based on data compiled by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs in 2003, the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs estimates around 13.5 percent of married women between the ages of 25 and 39 to be suffering from infertility. Between 2005 and 2007, an average of 55,000 couples attempted to have children by turning to vitro fertilization, accounting for 15 percent of all newlywed couples last year (some 327,700 couples).
Korea has one of the lowest birthrates in the world at just 1.19.
◆ Unclear Causes
There is no clear scientific explanation for the rise in infertility among young Koreans. Smoking, drinking, large amounts of caffeine and stress are cited as possible reasons. There are also claims that prolonged exposure to electromagnetic waves due to extended hours spent in front of computers lowers the sperm count.
Dr. Won Hyung-jae at CHA Fertility Center says one reason may be changes in the physical constitutions of young Koreans spurred on by stress and the consumption of unhealthy foods. A widely accepted reason behind the rise in infertility is the fact that more and more married women are having children later, due to their work, becoming less fertile as they get older.
◆ Insufficient Support
State medical insurance covers infertility tests and treatments to boost ovulation, but artificial insemination is not covered. As a result, many infertile couples cannot afford treatment even if they want to have children.
Since 2006, the government has begun offering some support for infertility treatment, but assistance is available only to low-income households. Starting this year, the government has expanded support, offering W2.7 million (US$1=W1,260) for each in-vitro fertilization treatment for women on state welfare, meaning women who come from households of four whose monthly income is less than W1.33 million, and W1.5 million per treatment for woman with average household income under W4.48 million.
But each in-vitro fertilization treatment costs between W3 million and W5 million, and it usually takes more than three attempts to become pregnant. Plus another W10 million to W20 million goes into buying medicine and other treatments. As a result, patients still have to foot medical bills between W1 million and W10 million themselves.
Lee Sang-young, the health ministry official in charge of dealing with the low birth rate problem, says infertility is not just a problem that affects individual households but society as a whole and requires a response from the government.
The French government covers the entire cost of up to six in-vitro fertilization treatments and four attempts to have test tube babies for women under 43. The Australian government covers the total cost of a test tube baby, and Japan provides infertile couples with 100,000 yen in annual support for five years.