South Korea To Lift Controversial Abortion Ban By 2020

          After 66 years of enforced restrictions, women of South Korea will soon have the right to freely have an abortion.

          The ban must be lifted by the end of 2020 according to the nation’s highest Constitutional Court. Seven out of nine judges – a surprising majority – agreed that outlawing the option of abortion was unconstitutional. Only six judges were actually required to overturn the bans. The settlement has been seen as a major win for pro-choice advocates across Korea.

          In the past, any women found who had an abortion could face legal repercussions. From up to a year of hard jail time to fines that ran up to two million won (roughly $1,800). Any doctor, medical professional or healthcare assistant who was caught aiding the termination of a pregnancy could also see similar fines and up to two years in prison.

          A social survey conducted by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs looked to poll the population on their take of the past law. Anonymously, roughly 3/4 of women surveyed aged 15-44 had seen the law as unfair. Also, roughly 20% of the respondents admitted to have had an abortion at one point despite it being illegal. The Health Ministry of Korea estimates that number to be ~50,000, down from 168,000 in 2011. However many doctors dispute this, saying criminalization of abortions may have tampered reporting. Some even say the actual figure could be as much as 10x more than reported by the government.

Protesters celebrating after hearing the latest decision made by Constitutional Court officials. Image courtesy of Lee Jin-man/AP.

          Of course, exceptions were still in place. In 1953 when the law was originally passed, it’s true that abortion in most circumstances was outlawed. However, exceptions were granted to cases that involved rape, incest or genetic disability. That was a long time ago, and in the years that came the ruling became rather contradictory with other policies and norms in general.

          On April 6th, over 1,000 anti-abortion protesters met in Seoul to protest. They gathered for a “March for Life” that was modeled after the US campaign featuring the same name. The week before hundreds of women marched in a pro-choice rally, claiming current laws. One of Korea’s largest women’s activist groups, the Korea Womenlink Center, saw cases of men threatening partners with police intervention towards women who had had an abortion. Either as payback for a broken relationship or as blackmail for things like money or manipulation, activist Hong Yeon-ji stated to have seen it all happen before.

A large gathering of pro-choice supporters in Seoul last year. Moment captured by Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.

          Just last month, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK), SK’s personal human rights watchdog, deemed the current restrictions unconstitutional: “In a democratic nation, people are not coerced to get pregnant and therefore the rights to terminate pregnancy should be safeguarded too… All couples and individuals should be able to freely decide on the number of children they have and when to have them.”

          Lawmakers across South Korea now have until December 31st, 2020 to revise any laws. Any abortion after 20-weeks will however still be ruled illegal.

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