S. Korean court legalizes artificial abortion at early stage

Lim Chang-won Reporter Posted : 2019-04-11 15:42 Updated : 2019-04-11 17:54
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Police control supporters and opponents of a law on abortion outside the constitutional court in Seoul on April 11. [Yonhap News Photo]

SEOUL -- Reversing its own decision in 2012, South Korea's constitutional court made a landmark ruling to legalize artificial abortion, putting an end to decades of active social and legal debate over the controversial issue that sparked strong opposition, especially from the Roman Catholic Church.

In a decision that drew enormous public attention, the constitutional court ruled on Thursday that a ban on abortion was unconstitutional. However, the court called for amendment by December 31, 2020, based on the judgment that abortion cannot be allowed immediately in full scale.

Out of nine judges, seven ruled in favor of a gynecologist who filed a petition in February 2017 while on trial after being indicted on charges of consent abortion, arguing that the law on abortion excessively infringes on pregnant women's right to self-determination.

The court said that the criminal code, which bans abortions in the early stages of pregnancy and imposes criminal punishment, is unconstitutional as it excessively infringes on pregnant women's right to self-determination by giving a one-sided and absolute advantage only to the public interest of protecting the life of the fetus.

The court said that abortion should be allowed before 22 weeks of pregnancy, citing an academic report that the fetus is able to survive independently after 22 weeks of pregnancy if supported by medical technology.

The government promised to take follow-up steps, saying it would respect the court's decision. However, the Catholic church expressed deep regret. "Catholic Church's teachings remain unchanged that abortion is a crime that kills innocent lives in the womb directly and cannot be justified for any reason," Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea said in a statement.

The law allows abortions for victims of rape or incest, women whose health is at risk, cases where the fetus is suspected of having a genetic disorder, and pregnant women or their spouses who suffer from communicable or hereditary diseases. Women who have Illegal operations can be jailed for up to one year or a fine of up to two million won ($1,759), while doctors can receive a jail term of up to two years even if an abortion surgery was done with consent.

The law prohibiting abortion under normal circumstances has largely been unenforced as it caused various negative effects such as illegal, dangerous and expensive operations. Health and Welfare Ministry data showed that there were 49,764 cases of abortion in 2017, compared to
168,738 cases in 2010.

Equal rights groups have insisted the choice of women should be respected. The public perception has changed since the government launched a crackdown in 2010 as part of a campaign to tackle a low birthrate. Various incentives have been offered to have more children, but many women wanted to hold onto their career, leading them to delay marriage and have children late.