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In April 2019, South Korea’s Constitutional Court decriminalized abortion after finding the current laws unconstitutional. Although the deadline to amend the legislation has passed, abortion has been completely decriminalized in the country since 2021 and is no longer subjected to penalties. However, the government has failed to establish the necessary healthcare system to ensure safe abortion and guarantee the right to health in accordance with changing circumstances. The South Korean government continues to evade its responsibility, leaving many women and pregnant people in discriminatory and unsafe situations. The present situation has left activists, healthcare providers, and most importantly people in need of time-sensitive healthcare, confused and abandoned.

As the healthcare system has not changed since the decriminalization, safe and acceptable abortions are still elusive to those who need them. According to a 2023 report by the Moimnet (the Network to Assure Rights for Safe Abortion to Everyone), many respondents complained about the difficulty of finding reliable official information and medical institutions for safe abortion. Discriminatory language and behavior rooted in abortion stigma; alongside high costs were also pointed out. Two crucial medications for medical abortion, listed under the World Health Organization’s Model List of Essential Medicines, are still not approved for distribution. Additionally, medical institutions are limited to surgical abortions and providing misoprostol-only medical abortions which have an effectiveness rate of 85%, instead of the more effective combination of mifepristone and misoprostol (98% effective).

Moimnet stated that "According to surveys conducted by Joint Action for Reproductive Justice and the Network to Assure Rights for Safe Abortion to Everyone, most respondents stated that the medical institutions refused to treat them or asked to pay large fees or provided incorrect information about the legality of the abortion, creating anxiety about penalties. In addition, even though there is no reason to require the consent of a male partner or spouse, the healthcare providers still require the company and consent of the partner or spouse. This even results in violence from the partner. Although medical abortion was sometimes prescribed, the respondents claimed that they didn't receive sufficient guidance on the instructions, effects, and side effects. This is a continuing problem because the government does not officially approve medical abortion and does not cover them with insurance.”

Against this backdrop, women and pregnant people in South Korea are increasingly turning to online providers like Women on Web, an international organization that has been providing information and access to safe abortion care in nearly 200 countries since 2005. “We have seen growth in our service every year and most significantly, from South Korea. Between 2013 to 2019, more than 12,000 women and pregnant people from South Korea reached out to us for support. Post decriminalization, between 2019-2023, still a significant 11,121 women and pregnant people requested our support, indicating a continuing need for our service” says Venny Ala-Siurua, Executive Director of Women on Web.

However, since 2019, the Korea Communication Standards Commission (KCSC), a government censorship body, has blocked access to three Women on Web websites that provide information on sexual and reproductive rights, and safe abortion care, on the pretext that the website helps Korean women obtain abortion drugs without going through pharmacists. This censorship violates women's and pregnant people's right to obtain safe, timely, and affordable abortion care, their right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress, and the right to freedom of expression to share and receive essential information and care recommended by the World Health Organizations.

“Being able to access information without restrictions is ultimately about democracy and ensuring the quality of debates around abortion. Women on Web is not just about abortion pills, we are also about access to accurate and actionable abortion information and connecting our service users’ reproductive rights with digital rights. More and more people are seeking information and accessing safe abortion services online, especially where governments fail to provide these services. Therefore, attacks on digital rights have a direct, negative impact on accessing timely sexual and reproductive health care,” Venny emphasized.

With backing from an international coalition, Women on Web and Open Net Korea, a civil society organization advocating for digital rights filed a lawsuit against this censorship. The case is presently at the appeal court, with a judgment expected on May 17.

According to Kimmy Oh from Open Net Korea, “KCSC’s blocking of Women on Web’s website based on a non-judicial decision without even giving the website operator an opportunity to explain infringes due process of law and freedom of expression. Also, deleting or blocking information simply because it may or may not assist a mere technical violation of law, i.e., access to WHO-approved safe drugs without going through pharmacists is excessive and contrary to the Constitutional Court’s precedent. Such blocking is also misinformed because Women on Web connects women in need with overseas pharmacists willing to help and therefore there is no substantive violation of the Pharmaceutical Affairs Act.”

KCSC’s censorship of Women on Web’s website is problematic because:

  1. The censorship ignores and disconnects women and pregnant people from essential, accurate, and reliable health information.
  2. It prevents Women on Web from providing necessary care which leaves a void filled by misinformation and unsafe practices simply because government agencies act as gatekeepers, deciding what can reach people online.
  3. It undermines individuals’ fundamental rights to informed decision-making about their sexual and reproductive health.

We call upon the South Korean government to:

  1. Immediately revoke all orders blocking access to Women on Web’s website.
  2. Collaborate with trusted healthcare providers and abortion rights groups to promote unrestricted access to accurate health information.
  3. Establish clear WHO-aligned guidelines on safe abortion care that meet the needs of women and pregnant people in South Korea.
  4. Re-evaluate the roles of the KCSC so that it supports freedom of expression and access to information.

Endorsed by:

Open Net Korea

Moimnet Korea (The Network to Assure Rights for Safe Abortion to Everyone, a coalition consisting of the following organizations):

Activists group for Human Rights ‘BARAM’

Amnesty International Korea

E-LOOM Action for Anti-Prostitution and Human Rights

Green Party Korea

Health Right Network

Homeless Action

Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center

Korea Women’s Hotline

Korean Confederation of Trade Unions

Korean Federation Medical Activist Groups for Health Rights (Korean Nurses Association for Health Rights, Korean Pharmacists for Democratic Society, Korean Dentists Association for Healthy Society, Solidarity for Worker's Health, Association of Physicians for Humanism, Doctors of Korean Medicine for Health Rights)

Korean Healthcare Worker's Trade Union

Korean Transgender Rights Organization JOGAKBO

Korean Women’s Association United

Korean Women’s Environmental Network

Labor Party

March to Socialism

Organization of Unwed Moms for Changing the Future ‘Intree’

People’s Health Institute

Platform C

Sex Worker Liberation Action Movement Scarlet ChaCha

SHARE (The Center for Sexual Rights And Reproductive Justice)

Tacteennaeil (ECPAT Korea)

Women with Disabilities Empathy

Womenlink

 

Abortion Access Front, USA

Alternative Naissance, Canada

Baume à L'âme, South Korea

FAITH, Nepal

For Youth Initiative Kuala Lumpur (FYIKL), Malaysia

Human Rights Watch

KIT institute, Global

PurpleCode Collective, Indonesia

RAS ONG, Benin

Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia (RRAAM)

Shout Your Abortion, USA

Stichting LOVER, Netherlands

Tamtang Group, Thailand

Women’s March, USA

Young Activist Network for Abortion Advocacy, India (YANAA)

Youth Voices for Choices Africa, Kenya

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