Published: Fri, April 12, 2019
Global News | By Blake Casey

South Korea's Constitutional Court rules abortion ban incompatible with constitution

South Korea's Constitutional Court rules abortion ban incompatible with constitution

South Korea's Constitutional Court overturned the country's decades-long ban on abortion on Thursday in a landmark ruling that marks a major step for women's rights in a society where traditional gender roles are changing.

"The law criminalising a woman who undergoes abortion of her own will goes beyond the minimum needed to achieve the legislative objective and limits the right of self-determination of the woman who has become pregnant", the court said. The court ruling ordered South Korea's National Assembly to create legislation easing the current regulations by the end of 2020, calling the current abortion law incompatible with the constitution. Current exceptions to the law only allow abortions when a woman is pregnant through rape or incest, when a pregnancy seriously jeopardizes her health, or when she or her male partner has certain diseases.

Women caught going ahead with abortions can face a prison sentence of one year and a fine of £1,340, while medical workers who help terminate a pregnancy can be jailed for up to two years.

"I'm very disappointed", Song Hae-jung, 55, head of a citizens' coalition for the abortion ban, said outside the court gates. Punishing abortions for social and economic reasons without exception is seen as unconstitutional because it excessively restricts women's right to self-determination.

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. The current law will be maintained until then.

Thursday's ruling was made after a woman doctor who was prosecuted for performing nearly 70 abortions filed a challenge in 2017.

Opposing groups also gathered to protest against repealing the anti-abortion law. "Women deserve to be happy as much as we want to be today", said activist Bae Bok-ju. The court's ruling reflects the trend toward decriminalising abortion, with the number of actual cases where abortion was criminally punished falling in recent years. "This judgment means that they should be carried out safely and legally, and that women and girls are treated with compassion and respect for their human rights and their reproductive autonomy", said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International's East Asia Research Director, in a statement responding to the ruling. Kim Dong-seok, head of the Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said doctors wanted to respect the law, but the law has always been unrealistic.

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"Keeping my abortion a secret has been making me feel unnecessarily guilty for all these years", said the 50-year-old who asked for her forename not to be used to protect her anonymity.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea expressed "deep regret" over the verdict.

It's not clear exactly how many abortions take place in South Korea. Doctors performing the procedure face up to two years in prison.

Religious belief is widespread in South Korea, and some of its evangelical mega-churches are among those defending the ban. According to government records, there were only 15 indictments on abortion-related cases in 2013.

Some waved placards that said "abolish the abortion ban" while others held up images of fetuses and signs equating abortion with murder.

An easing of the ban could open up the door to more abortions for social and economic reasons.

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