In April 2019, South Korea’s Constitutional Court had ruled that making abortion a criminal offense was unconstitutional and ordered the legislature to revise the laws by the end of 2020. The judges said women and girls should have up to 22 weeks into their pregnancy to allow “sufficient time to make and carry out a holistic decision.”
Before the decision, abortion had been illegal since 1953. Pregnant people undergoing an abortion risked a prison sentence of up to a year, or a fine of up to 2 million won (US$1,850). Healthcare workers providing abortions faced up to two years in prison. The only exceptions to the ban were for cases of rape or incest, pregnancies likely to jeopardize the woman’s health, or situations in which the woman or her spouse had certain hereditary or communicable diseases. Married women needed their spouse’s permission to undergo the procedure.
The laws were rarely enforced, and in practice abortions were widely available. But the laws created a feeling of fear and stigma around abortion. They prevented healthcare providers and their patients from talking openly about their experiences, sharing information, and supporting each other.
The case that compelled the court to act was part of a years-long effort by a broad coalition including feminists, healthcare providers, disability rights advocates, lawyers, youth activists, and religious groups. The group sought and obtained broad support for reform, in the form of amicus (friend of the court) briefs supporting the case, including one from a government ministry. Human Rights Watch also weighed in.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing since the order. In 2020, the government proposed legislation that would have partially reformed the law, but the National Assembly did not act. On January 1, 2021, under the terms of the court order, abortion was officially decriminalized. Still, it is a confusing situation, as there is little clarity on how, when, or where an abortion can be obtained.
More needs to be done. The government should support laws and adopt policies ensuring abortion access, issue guidance for health professionals, and provide information about sexual and reproductive health and rights, including abortion, to the public.
South Korea’s newfound respect for abortion rights is a testament to the many activists who pressed for change over many years.