Global Womens Rights

South Korea Rules Sixty Year Old Abortion Ban Unconstitutional

On Thursday, Seoul’s Constitutional Court voted 7-to-2 to overturn the 66-year-old abortion ban in South Korea, which criminalized abortion except in cases of rape, incest or imminent danger to the women’s health, and was one of the strictest abortion bans in a developed country.

The court ruled the abortion ban as unconstitutional and violated a pregnant women’s choice and “a pregnant woman’s right to self determination.

The court ordered Parliament to revise the abortion ban by deciding whether to restrict abortions in the late stages of a pregnancy, by the end of 2020. Until the deadline, the ban will still be enforced. If lawmakers do not meet the deadline, the ban will become void. Legalization paves the way for the first abortion rights in South Korea.

Despite the overruling being met with praise from the majority, a small faction of Catholics and other Christian denominations have been vocal over their outrage. They held a protest outside of the court, whilst women’s health care advocates rallied on the other side. The anti-abortion protesters shouted demeaning terms like “murderers” and called the court ruling “against humanity.”

Lee Yu-rim of the Sexual and Reproductive Rights Forum called the ruling a “historical milestone” and stated that, “Now a woman can be respected for her own decision about her body.”

In February, a women’s group campaigning for abortion rights in South Korea said, “When there were too many people, they told us ‘not to produce babies’ in the name of family planning, and when they thought there were not enough people, they then told us ‘to produce babies’ or face punishment… We can no longer put up with this deceitful frame.”

In 1973, the government revised the law to allow abortions for rape or incest victims, if the pregnancy posed imminent danger to the women’s health, or to couples who could prove they had hereditary diseases. In the 1970s and 1980s, South Korea’s population grew immensely and the government started population and birth rate control campaigns, issuing propaganda posters with slogans like “It’s too crowded in Korea” and “Even two is too much.”

The ban was first enacted in 1953, when South Korean laws were first written. Although the ban criminalized abortions, they were widely available and practiced in South Korea for decades, with 1 in 5 women saying they have had an abortion. Regardless, women’s rights advocates continued to push for legalization because women’s health was consistently jeopardized under the ban because people sought out unauthorized and unregulated abortions.

The long-standing, now-overruled ban allowed women to be fined or face up to a year in prison for having the procedure, and medical providers that perform the procedure could face up to two years. Although it was allowed in special cases, a woman still needed permission from her spouse or cohabiting partner. Advocates emphasized the ban made women vulnerable to reprisals, as most abortion-convicted women were reported by boyfriends, former boyfriends, husbands and in-laws. Obstetricians and legal scholars have stated that the government turned a blind eye and implicitly encouraged abortion for years in order to advance social goals, so the ban was not heavily enforced, but it caused women to face unnecessary hurdles like doctors that would not perform the procedure due to fear of persecution.


Media Resources: Washington Post 4/11/19; LA Times 4/11/19; New York Times 4/11/19; New York Times 1/13/18

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