Constitutional right to abortion in South Korea

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Abortion was decriminalized in South Korea by court ruling in 2021, and millions of women breathed sighs of relief.

In April 2019, South Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled that making abortion a criminal offense was unconstitutional and ordered lawmakers to revise laws by the end of 2020. The judges said women and Girls should be up to 22 weeks pregnant to allow “sufficient time to make and implement a comprehensive decision.

Prior to this ruling, abortion had been illegal since 1953. Pregnant women undergoing an abortion risked a prison term of up to one year or a fine of up to 2 million won ($1,850). Health workers performing abortions faced up to two years in prison. The only exceptions to the prohibition relate to cases of rape or incest, pregnancies likely to compromise the health of the woman or situations in which the woman or her spouse is suffering from certain hereditary or transmissible diseases. Married women needed their spouse’s permission to undergo the procedure.

Laws were rarely enforced, and in practice abortions were widely available. But the laws have created a sense of fear and stigma around abortion. They prevented healthcare providers and their patients from speaking openly about their experiences, sharing information and supporting each other.

The case that compelled the court to act was part of a years-long effort by a broad coalition including feminists, healthcare providers, disability rights advocates, lawyers, youth activists and religious groups. The group sought and gained widespread support for reform, in the form of amicus (friend of the court) briefs supporting the case, including one from a government department. Human Rights Watch also weighed in.

It hasn’t been easy since ordering. In 2020, the government proposed a law that would have partially reformed the law, but the National Assembly did not act. On January 1, 2021, under the terms of the court order, abortion was officially decriminalized. Yet it is a confusing situation, as there is little clarity on how, when and where an abortion can be obtained.

We need to do more. The government should support laws and adopt policies guaranteeing access to abortion, provide guidance to health professionals, and provide information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, including abortion, to the public.

South Korea’s newfound respect for abortion rights is a testament to the many activists who have called for change for many years.

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