South Korea Constitutional Court rules abortion law unconstitutional

Protesters hold placards reading 'Abolish punishment for abortion' as they protest South Korean abortion laws in Gwanghwamun plaza in Seoul

The government ruled the 66-year-old anti-abortion law as unconstitutional.

Abortion has been illegal in South Korea since 1953, except in cases of rape, incest or severe hereditary disorders and where the mother's health is at risk.

The court saw that a fetus is considered as close to be a human being after 22 weeks of pregnancy.

Seven years ago, the Constitutional Court considered the fetus' right to life superior to women's right to self-determination, but this time it judged that the right to life violated the right to self-determination.

"(The current law) limits the pregnant woman's right to choose freely, which is against the principle that infringements on a person's rights must be kept to a minimum", the court said.

The ruling in itself will not immediately legalize abortion.

Legislators must implement the reform legislation by December 31, 2020, at the latest, and unless the improved legislation is not made by that time, the provisions will lose their validity, the court added. The current law will be maintained until then. If lawmakers fail to pass a related bill, Articles 269 and 270 of the Criminal Code will become invalid.

"I'm very disappointed", Song Hae-jung, 55, head of a citizens' coalition for the abortion ban, said outside the court gates.

It's not clear exactly how many abortions take places in South Korea.

Two dissenting justices ruled the ban was constitutional and should stand, writing: "That we can debate the constitutionality of abortion laws at the moment is because we were born from our mothers without being aborted. We deserve the world's attention and we deserve its recognition". 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. "It is a chance to change history".

Only a few meters away, scores of anti-abortion activists denounced the decision, shouting, "Protect women and fetuses!" South Korea is one of only five OECD member states that don't allow such abortions, according to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. The case was brought before the Constitutional Court by female doctor who had been charged with performing nearly 70 abortions. If no revision is made by the deadline, the abortion ban will automatically lose its legal effect starting January 1, 2021.

Under the existing abortion law, women face up to one year in prison or a fine of up to 2 million Korean won (roughly $1,750).

Still, the illegality of abortions forces women to seek out unauthorised and often expensive surgeries to end their pregnancies, creating a social stigma. In its verdict, the court said that criminalizing abortion prohibits a woman's "right to self-determination" and found that it imposed physical and psychological burdens on pregnant women as well as social and economic suffering.

A historic decision in favor of the pro-choice movement had been widely expected, given the change in the composition of the Constitutional Court. Seven of the court's nine justices ruled the law unconstitutional, while two dissented.

According to a recent April 2019 public opinion poll, 58% of the South Korean public supported abolishing the abortion ban.

A survey by Gallup Korea conducted last month showed 45 percent of the respondents agreed that abortion is another word for murder, a decline from 53 percent in 2016 and 78 percent in 1994.

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