South Korean Court Rules Abortion Ban Unconstitutional

The Constitutional Court of Korea (above) delivered its landmark ruling on abortion on April 11. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Constitutional Court of Korea (above) delivered its landmark ruling on abortion on April 11. (Wikimedia Commons)

The South Korean Constitutional Court ruled the country’s 65-year-old abortion ban unconstitutional on April 11. Under the ban, women who underwent an abortion could be punished with up to a year in prison or a fine of two million won ($1,750), although there were exceptions for rape or health risks to the mother.

Despite being illegal, abortion is common in South Korea. According to the New York Times, the government-run Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs reported that there were about 49,700 abortions in 2017, 94 percent of which were illegal.

Some scholars consider this to be a very conservative estimate: according to the Guardian, Park Myung-bae, a professor at Pai Chai University, suggested that there were over 500,000 abortions in 2016. According to the New York Times, however, the ban is severely under-enforced, with only 80 cases going to trial between 2012 and 2017 and only one case resulting in jail time.

Many women’s rights activists have criticized the law in the past due to its restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. Activists claimed the unregulated system of abortion services undermined women’s health, according to the LA Times, especially since few doctors were willing to risk prosecution to provide abortion-related services.

Additionally, according to the Guardian, some women have reported that their husbands and ex-boyfriends have used the law as blackmail, threatening to reveal their abortions to authorities as a form of revenge.

The court ruling is a victory for women’s rights activists in South Korea, albeit a tentative one: according to the Guardian, the ban will remain in place for now, allowing Parliament to amend or repeal the law. Otherwise, the ban will automatically become null and void by the end of 2020.

For now, the New York Times reports that Seoul groups are celebrating the decision as an “important stride in strengthening gender equality.”