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South Korea Partially Recognizes Reproductive Rights

Draft Law an Improvement, but Still No Freedom to Choose

Protesters shout slogans during a rally demanding the abolition of the country's ban on abortions outside of the Constitutional Court in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 11, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

South Korea’s government last week announced new draft legislation that would permit abortion up until 14 weeks and, in some circumstances, up to 24 weeks, but falls short of full decriminalization.

The proposed law represents an important reform of South Korea’s restrictive abortion legislation, but an incomplete one. The bill as drafted would continue to deny many pregnant people the right to make their own choices about whether to continue a pregnancy.

The government’s hand was forced in April 2019 when the Constitutional Court ruled that South Korea’s existing legislation on abortion was unconstitutional. Human Rights Watch filed an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief in that case. The court set the deadline of December 2020 for the National Assembly to reform the law. Activists have pushed for reform for years.

Under current South Korean law, procuring or providing an abortion is a crime under most circumstances. A person who undergoes an abortion risks a prison sentence of up to a year or a fine of up to 2 million won (US$1,850). Healthcare workers who provide abortions face up to two years in prison. There are exceptions, for instance in cases of rape or incest, if continuing the pregnancy might jeopardize the woman’s health, or if the woman or spouse has certain hereditary or communicable diseases. Married women must have their husband’s permission for an abortion.

The proposed law would end criminalization of abortions before the 14th week. Up to the 24th week, pregnant people would be permitted to obtain an abortion in cases of rape or for social, economic, or health reasons, subject to mandatory counselling and a 24-hour “consideration period.” The law would remove the requirement that husbands consent.

These reforms are a step forward, but the government is missing a chance to fully reform the law by decriminalizing all abortion. When governments restrict abortion, women still have abortions – they just have more dangerous ones. According to the United Nations, in 2011 the average unsafe abortion rate was more than four times greater in countries with restrictive abortion policies than in countries with liberal abortion policies.

The bill is subject to a 40-day comment period before it goes to the National Assembly. President Moon Jae-in and his government should use that time to revise the legislation to fully decriminalize abortion. South Korea should remove all penalties for people who seek abortion and for medical providers of abortions.


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