South Korea’s constitutional court ruled to lift the country’s 66-year-old ban on abortion on Thursday, in a landmark decision that will decriminalise the medical procedure by the end of 2020.
Seven out of nine judges declared that the current penalising of abortion was “unconstitutional” and ordered parliament to revise the 1953 law.
“(The current law) limits the pregnant woman’s right to choose freely, which is against the principle that an infringement on a person’s right must be kept to the minimum,” said the judgement, according to the Yonhap news agency.
The watershed moment comes as the East Asian nation faces a growing, and unprecedented, women’s rights movement inspired by the global #MeToo campaign and revolting against the patriarchal values underpinning South Korean society.
South Korea, Asia’s fourth largest economy, is one of the few industrialised nations where the procedure is illegal except in cases of rape, incest and when the mother faces serious health risks.
Women caught going ahead with abortions can face a prison sentence of one year and a fine of £1,340, while medical workers who help terminate a pregnancy can be jailed for up to two years.
Although prosecutions are rare, pro-abortion activists argue that the fear of jail time leaves women in a vulnerable position – unable to pay their medical bills or seek follow-up treatment.
Pro and anti-abortion activists gathered on opposite sides of the road outside the Seoul court awaiting the judgement, with one side letting out a cheer as the announcement was made.
The issue has deeply divided South Korea’s conservative society. A 2017 opinion poll showed a narrow public majority – 51.9 per cent – in favour of abolishing the ban.
However, a survey this year by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs found that three quarters of women aged 15 to 44 regarded the law as unfair.
Thursday’s ruling came in response to a 2017 complaint filed by an obstetrician standing trial for performing almost 70 abortions.
The court last upheld the ban in 2012, arguing that abortion would “end up running rampant” if punishments were abolished.
However, seven years later, six of the nine judges had been appointed by Moon Jae-in, the liberal-leaning president.
Ryu Min-hee, one of the counsels on the constitutional court case, told AFP that as long as women could not make their own choices about pregnancy and parenthood, the country “won’t be able to establish an equal society in its true sense.”