Published: Sat, April 13, 2019
Worldwide | By Isabel Fisher

South Korean constitutional court lifts abortion ban

South Korean constitutional court lifts abortion ban

In a landmark decision, the court ruled 7-2 that criminalizing abortion restricts pregnant women's rights to self-determination by forcing them to maintain the pregnancies, though giving birth and child-rearing have a "decisive" impact on women's lives.

The ruling will mean the end of long-standing but little enforced criminal laws under which abortion was punishable by up to a year in prison for women who undergo the procedure, and up to two years for medical providers. She filed a petition arguing the abortion ban violates women's right to happiness.

With Thursday's ruling, the law remains in effect but legislators must pass a new bill based on the court's decision by December 31, 2020. The ban was officially reviewed after a legal challenge from a female doctor who was prosecuted for performing nearly 70 abortion procedures. Women who have Illegal operations can be jailed for up to one year or a fine of up to two million won ($1,759), while doctors can receive a jail term of up to two years even if an abortion surgery was done with consent. There has been a series of heated panel discussions on television and internet programs; activists, both for and against, have for months stood with placards near the court.

"Today's ruling is a major step forward for the human rights of women and girls in South Korea".

The court said that abortion should be allowed before 22 weeks of pregnancy, citing an academic report that the fetus is able to survive independently after 22 weeks of pregnancy if supported by medical technology.

Most other countries in the 36-member Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the so-called most developed countries, allow abortions for broad social and economic reasons. "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. "There's a discrepancy between women's rights and [an unborn] baby's rights - it is a small human on its own". Some held placards carrying images of fetuses and messages such as "Who can speak for me?" and "Don't kill me, please".

"Relevant government ministries will cooperate to seamlessly come up with follow-up measures to the court's decision", the government said in a statement. The Catholic Bishops Conference of Korea expressed "deep regrets" saying, adding: "The ruling denies the rights to life of embryos who do not have the ability to defend themselves". If not punished, more abortions will take place, they noted. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus one percentage point. According to government records, there were only 15 indictments on abortion-related cases in 2013.

But while prosecutions are rare, activists said criminalising abortions leaves women vulnerable to unsafe surgical procedures and blackmail by partners.

A survey previous year found that one in five women who had been pregnant had had an abortion, and just 1% fell under the country's legal exemptions.

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