South Korea’s Constitutional Court overturned a 65-year-old ban on abortion in a 7–2 vote on Thursday. “Criminalizing a woman who undergoes abortion of her own will,” the ruling read, “limits the right of self-determination of the woman.” The court called on the Korean parliament to revise the law by 2020.
The abortion ban was adopted in 1953, following the 1950–53 Korean War. Women who terminated their pregnancy could face up to one year in prison or a fine of 2 million won (about $1,750). Doctors who performed abortions risked up to two years in prison, although the Korean government rarely prosecuted medical professionals under this law.
Some exceptions have been introduced over the years, permitting abortion in cases of rape and incest, when the mother’s life is at risk, and when there is a high risk of hereditary disorders. Despite these allowances, however, abortion under exceptional circumstances requires spousal consent and is always illegal after 24 weeks. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, South Korea’s restrictions are on par with those in Poland, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia. In Poland, for example, abortion is legal only in cases of incest, rape, or fetal impairment, and requires parental consent for minors. Similarly, in Thailand, abortion is permitted in cases of rape, fetal impairment, or if the pregnancy endangers a woman’s health. Saudi Arabia requires a woman to obtain parental and/or spousal consent and allows terminations only to save the mother’s life. Overall, countries in North America and Europe and Central and Eastern Asia have the most liberal abortion laws in the world, with South Korea and Poland as the two notable exceptions.
The court ruling comes at a time when South Korea’s fertility rates have hit historic lows. In the early 1970s, when exceptions to the abortion ban were first introduced, the fertility rate averaged at 4.1 children per woman. In fact, the Korean government was so worried about its increasing population that it offered men exemptions from mandatory military service in exchange for free vasectomies. By 2015, the average was just 1.2 children per woman, one of the lowest in the world. As early as 2009, the government became concerned with declining birth rates, launching a public campaign to discourage abortion, with subway ads proclaiming that “With abortion, you are aborting the future.”
Perhaps in response to the government’s concern or due to other factors, abortion rates in Korea have been steadily falling. In 2008, the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs counted 241,411 abortions, whereas in 2017, the number dropped to only 49,764. Of course, those numbers do not account for the many abortions that go unreported. Beyond health risks associated with illegal abortions, fear of retribution has been a major issue for Korean women, with cases of husbands and boyfriends using women’s secret abortions to blackmail them. About 10 percent of Korean women who had an abortion reported using illegally obtained medications to induce a miscarriage, rather than seeking a medical operation. There’s some concern about the unsanctioned use of abortion medication, however, as women often have no way of knowing if pills they’ve purchased illegally are properly manufactured and safe to use, thus increasing their risk of health complications.
Contrary to the conservative stance of their government, the majority of Korean women were in favor of overturning the abortion ban before Thursday’s court ruling. In 2018, 75 percent of women believed that the law punishing women for receiving abortions should be amended.
Forty-nine percent wanted to specifically amend the rules surrounding spousal consent. Women’s rights groups in Korea have been pressuring the government to uplift the abortion ban for a few years now. The Constitutional Court has already considered amending the anti-abortion legislation back in 2012, when it split 4–4, leaving the law intact. In 2017, more than 200,000 South Koreans signed a petition calling for the legalization of abortion. When South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare classified abortion as an unethical medical practice, activists staged protests in Seoul, demanding an end to the anti-abortion law. Finally, a gynecologist charged with conducting 69 abortions between 2013 and 2015 brought her case before the Constitutional Court in hopes of overturning the 2012 ruling—this time, it worked.
Abortion remains a hush-hush topic in South Korean society: A baby in South Korea is considered to be 1 year old at birth, implying that life begins at conception, and unmarried pregnant women continue to face societal stigma. When the Constitutional Court moved to consider the abortion ban, stories of hardships that South Korean women faced after getting an abortion proliferated in the media. One woman told the Japan Times how a doctor openly judged her—24, unmarried—while performing an abortion and dismissed her physical discomfort during the procedure because she’d already “done everything.” Another remembered taking a traditional Korean brew at 21 in hopes of inducing a miscarriage, enduring extreme pain, and being forced to travel to a clinic to receive an illegal abortion when the herbs failed.
While this week’s court ruling is a major victory for women and women’s rights activists in South Korea, the country still has a long way to go when it comes to eliminating cultural stigma and normalizing abortion as a valid choice.