South Korea court: Abortion ban from 1953 is unconstitutional

The landmark ruling calls on Parliament by 2020 to revise the law, which activists say is draconian

By BLOOMBERG

SEOUL • South Korea’s Constitutional Court issued a landmark ruling that rejected a law from seven decades ago calling for prison for women who get an abortion and doctors who perform the procedure.

The court, with two of nine judges dissenting, said “criminalising” abortions is unconstitutional and that an abortion in the early stages of pregnancy “should be allowed”.

It called on Parliament by 2020 to revise the law, which reproductive rights groups said is out of step with the developed world and draconian.

South Korea’s abortion restrictions are on par with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Burundi and Poland, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health laws.

South Korea has been an outlier among industrialised nations, where nearly all the countries liberalised their abortion laws between 1950 and 1985, according to the Centre for Reproductive Rights.

Siding with women’s rights advocates, the court rejected arguments from proponents of the law, mostly religious groups and social conservatives, who had said the ban protected the rights of the unborn.

South Korea has one of the highest percentages of Christians in its population among Asian nations, and evangelical groups have pushed to keep the abortion ban in place.

Under South Korean law, women who get an abortion face up to a year in prison, while doctors who perform the procedure face up to two years behind bars.

There are exceptions for cases of sexual crimes, where the mother’s health is at risk or when the fetus is at risk of being born with severe defects.

“We believe the Constitutional Court’s ruling has opened a new platform for hi story towards gender equality,” Korean Women’s Association United, a civil rights group that has campaigned against current law, said in a statement.

The law was enacted by South Korea’s authoritarian leaders seeking to boost the country’s population after the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War, but it is rarely enforced now.

Doctors who carry out the procedure are typically paid in cash and there are concerns that this allows some of them to hide the income from tax officials.

The last time the court considered a case on the constitutionality of the abortion ban was in 2012 when it reached a split decision that kept the law on the books.

Abortions have averaged more than 50,000 annually over the past few years, according to a survey released in February by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.

That is down from about 350,000 from a decade ago with a major reason being the increased use of morning-after pills, which are readily available through online purchases. — Bloomberg