The Constitutional Court of South Korea has found a law that makes abortion a criminal offense to be unconstitutional. The law has been on the books for 66 years and currently remains in effect, although the court has given Parliament until the end of 2020 to amend it. If not revised by that time, the law will be invalidated.
“The ruling marks an important stride in strengthening gender equality and women’s right to make choices for themselves,” said civic group, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, however, decried the ruling, saying, “Abortion is the crime of killing an innocent life during pregnancy.”
Clashing Views and a Double Standard
The Constitutional Court last ruled on the law in 2012, and at that time found the ban on abortion to be constitutional. But support for abortion is widespread among childbearing women in South Korea. An average of 125 women per hour receive an abortion, and last August, women in Seoul protested the abortion ban, calling for it to be repealed. Under the current law, abortion is punishable with up to two years in prison, but this penalty is rarely enforced. Between 2012 and 2017, only one person actually went to prison for being involved in an abortion, and the 79 others who were prosecuted were given fines or suspended prison sentences. In 2017, 49,700 abortions were administered, with almost 94 percent of them being illegal (the law makes exceptions for abortion in certain cases).
Even so, the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHSA), which conducts “systematic research and evaluation of national policies and programs related to health care, social welfare, social insurance and population,” says that the number of abortions among women of the same age has declined over past years. From 2005 to 2017, the number of abortions decreased from 342,000 to 49,700. KIHSA believes that the reason for this decline is that more women are using contraceptives and that there are fewer women of childbearing age. However, doctors say it is possible that the known estimates do not account for all of the abortions that are occurring in the country.
The Government’s Interest
The pro-abortion mindset that many South Korean women have could have been influenced in part by the attitude the government took toward abortion in the ’70s and ’80s. At that time, officials tolerated abortion because they wanted to limit the growth of the population. They actually told people, “Two children are one too many.” Now, however, the country has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. This means the government has a vested interest in encouraging women to have children and will even go so far at times as to call abortion, “unpatriotic.”
Nevertheless, various offices of the South Korean government have expressed different perspectives on the abortion ban. The Ministry of Justice has said that the ban protects “a fetus’s right to life,” while the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has criticized the law. The office of President Moon Jae-in has not commented on the court’s ruling at this time.