Constitutional Court orders revision of abortion ban by end of 2020

South Korea's Constitutional Court chief judge Yoo Nam-seok center and other judges sit for the ruling on decriminalization of abortion at the court in Seoul on Thursday

South Korea's Constitutional Court chief judge Yoo Nam-seok center and other judges sit for the ruling on decriminalization of abortion at the court in Seoul on Thursday

South Korean women's rights activists react after the constitutional court's ruling on decriminalization of abortion during a rally against the abortion ban outside the court in Seoul on April 11, 2019. The current law will be maintained until then.

"The law criminalising a woman who undergoes abortion of her own will goes beyond the minimum needed to achieve the legislative goal and limits the right of self-determination of the woman who has become pregnant", the court said.

"The abortion 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", the court said in a statement.

It's not clear exactly how many abortions take places in South Korea. There are exemptions, with current law allowing abortions within 24 weeks of becoming pregnant for medical purposes such as a hereditary disease or the pregnancy causing grave danger to the health of the mother, or in the case of pregnancy through rape.

A woman in South Korea can now be punished with up to one year in prison for having an abortion, and a doctor can get up to two years in prison for performing an abortion. In 2012 the law survived a previous challenge when the court was split evenly, four to four, with one seat unfilled at the time. Before that period, women's rights to self-determination outweighs a fetus's right to life as giving birth and child-rearing have a "decisive" impact on women's lives, according to the verdict.

"Keeping my abortion a secret has been making me feel unnecessarily guilty for all these years", said the 50-year-old who asked for her forename not to be used to protect her anonymity. Legal experts predicted Thursday's ruling would be different, with the court acknowledging the inconsistency in the existing rules.

Still, the illegality of abortions forces women to seek out unauthorised and often expensive surgeries to end their pregnancies, creating a social stigma.

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South Korea will be overturning its ban on abortion.

In a 2017 survey by Realmeter, 52 percent said the law should be abolished, a reversal from the 53 percent opposition in a 2010 poll.

Ahead of the court ruling, rights groups for and against abortion held a series of rallies in front of the courthouse in Seoul to voice their opinions. When the results were announced, cheers erupted on the pro-choice side, with chants of "we won!" ringing out, while anger and tears flowed on the anti-abortion side.

Calls to repeal the law have gained traction in recent years, but support for it is also staunch in a country that remains conservative towards female sexuality and highly influenced by evangelical Christianity. Following the petition, senior presidential secretary for civil affairs Cho Kuk released a public message saying it was time to "find a new balance (social consensus)" on abortion.

"The ruling denies a fetus's right to live, which is a dignified human being at the moment of conception and has no ability to defend itself", said Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-joong, the president of the Catholic leaders' group. Kim Dong-seok, head of the Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said doctors wanted to respect the law, but the law has always been unrealistic.

Political parties gave a similar response, stressing the need to make legislative efforts to back up the ruling.

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