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South Korea’s Abortion Reform A Model for Others

More Countries Should Join Global Trend Toward Easing Abortion Restrictions

Protesters celebrate after listening to the judgment during a rally demanding the abolition of the South Korea's abortion law outside the Constitutional Court in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 11, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

When a court in South Korea overturned the country’s restrictive abortion laws recently, it joined a global trend toward easing abortion laws.

Other countries that are stubbornly clinging to the criminalization of abortion should follow suit.  

In lifting the country’s six-decade-old abortion ban last week, South Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled that the existing abortion laws were unconstitutional and ordered the National Assembly to decriminalize abortion and reform laws around pregnancy terminations by December 2020. Human Rights Watch filed an amicus brief in the case.

Up to now, South Korea’s laws meant that, in most circumstances, procuring or providing an abortion was a crime. A woman who had an abortion risked a prison term and a fine, and healthcare workers who provided abortions also faced penalties. There were exceptions, for instance in cases of rape or incest, if continuing the pregnancy might jeopardize the woman’s health, or if the woman or her spouse had certain hereditary or communicable diseases. Married women had to have their husband’s permission for an abortion.

South Korea’s move follows other recent abortion law reforms, including in Ireland and Chile. Between 2000 and 2017, some 27 countries broadened their legal grounds for abortion.

But too many countries continue to criminalize abortion or unduly restrict access even when it’s legal. Some 26 countries still prohibit abortion altogether – with no exceptions. And in dozens of other countries, abortion is only permitted in the most extreme circumstances.

Banning abortion doesn’t make it stop. World Health Organization research found that criminalizing abortions only drives it underground and makes the procedure more dangerous. Unsafe abortions seriously threaten the health of women and girls. An estimated 25 million unsafe abortions were carried out every year between 2010 and 2014.

But there is cause for hope. Research shows that removing restrictions on abortion results in lower maternal mortality.

Women in South Korea are celebrating this long-awaited reform. Now it’s time for other countries to secure women’s basic reproductive rights, including their access to safe, legal abortion. 

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