South Korean court strikes down decades-old law banning abortion

Protesters hold placards reading

South Korea's Constitutional Court ruled on Thursday, April 11, that the country's national abortion ban is unconstitutional. But the nine-member bench ruled by seven to two that the 1953 statute aimed at protecting lives and traditional values "goes against the constitution" and ordered the law to be revised by the end of next year.

While there have rarely been criminal convictions for violating the ban, the illegality has created a significant social stigma around it and made it hard for women to obtain the relevant health information. But researchers say the social stigma attached to illegal abortions means the actual number could be as high as 500,000 in 2016. It said the current abortion ban will be repealed if the parliament fails to come up with new legislation by then. Doctors or medical healthcare professional who perform the contraceptive procedure can also face imprisonment if tried and convicted. The country's doctors also welcomed the decision with the Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists saying: "This ruling will ensure women's rights to health". Some shook their placards and shouted: "Abolish the anti-abortion law!"

Amnesty International's East Asia Research Director Resean Rife said that the decision was "a major step forward for the human rights of women and girls in South Korea".

Sulli showed support for the abortion ban.

"A doctor, herb doctor, midwife, pharmacist or druggist who procures the miscarriage of a woman upon her request or with her consent, shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than two years", Article 270 of the act says. More than 20 pro-life activists held placards carrying images of fetuses and message like "Who can speak for me?" and "Don't kill me, please".

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The court decision Thursday reflects the rise of feminism in South Korea, a movement that in recent years has begun pushing back against deeply embedded gender inequality.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea expressed "deep regret" over the verdict. When the pollster conducted the survey in 2012, 53.1 percent of respondents said abortion should not be legalized. They mostly cited worries about difficulty in continuing their studies and jobs, economic problems and a desire to wait, according to the survey conducted by the state-run Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. "Catholic Church's teachings remain unchanged that abortion is a crime that kills innocent lives in the womb directly and can not be justified for any reason", Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea said in a statement.

Yet between 2014 and 2018 only 64 abortion cases were prosecuted, with nearly all resulting in suspended sentences or probation, according to data from the prosecutor's office published in the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper. But it's not easy to find hospitals offering illegal abortions, and they usually charge high prices because the procedures are not covered by medical insurance programs.

"Today's decision was made because countless women ceaselessly fought for their rights for so many years".

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