South Korea Overturns Abortion Ban After Nearly 70 Years

South Korea’s top court ruled Thursday that the country’s highly restrictive abortion law is unconstitutional and set a deadline for officials to lift the ban by next year, nearly 70 years since it was enacted.

Passed in 1953, the law bans most abortions except in the cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother. It also punishes women who receive abortions, as well as doctors who perform the procedure. In the select cases where abortions are allowed, the woman must seek her spouse’s permission.

In a 7-2 ruling Thursday, the judges on the country’s constitutional court said the ban “limits women’s rights to pursue their own destinies, and violates their rights to health by limiting their access to safe and timely procedures,” and ordered the country’s national assembly to pass a new law legalizing abortion by the end of 2020.

Protesters mobilized against South Korea's abortion ban last year.

Protesters mobilized against South Korea’s abortion ban last year.

“Embryos completely depend on the mother’s body for their survival and development, so it cannot be concluded that they are separate, independent living beings entitled to the right to life,” the court said in a statement announcing the ruling, in response to a legal challenge from a doctor facing criminal charges for performing 69 illegal abortions.

Women rights’ activists, who had fought against the ban for years, celebrated the landmark decision as a dramatic shift away from years of regressive policies for South Korean women, which have received renewed attention as the country goes through its own Me Too movement.

“I believe this ruling frees women from shackles,” said Kim Su-jung, a lawyer representing the doctor, according to Reuters.

The country is one of the few developed nations in the world with such a restrictive abortion ban, HuffPost Korea reported last month.

South Korean women's rights activists react after the constitutional court's ruling on decriminalisation of abortion during a

South Korean women’s rights activists react after the constitutional court’s ruling on decriminalisation of abortion during a rally against the abortion ban outside the court in Seoul on April 11, 2019.

The court upheld the ban in 2012, claiming that lifting punishments for abortion would allow it to “end up running rampant.” 

But in March, an independent government body, the National Human Rights Commission, issued a statement to the court, saying that the ban should be overturned.

“Punishing women who undergo abortion based on Article 269 of the Criminal Act infringes on their right to self-determination, right to health, right to life and reproductive rights, among others,” the commission said.

Last month, the country’s president, Moon Jae-in, appointed two progressive judges to the court to replace two retiring conservative judges, making it increasingly likely that the ban was on its way out.

“Today’s ruling is a major step forward for the human rights of women and girls in South Korea,” Roseann Rife, the East Asia research director for Amnesty International, said in a statement Thursday. “The country’s draconian laws have resulted in discrimination and stigmatization for generations of women and girls by forcing them to undergo clandestine and unsafe abortions. The constitutional court has sent a clear message this must change, and in future the human rights of women and girls must be fully protected and respected.”

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