On 11 April, by a decision of seven to two, the South Korean Constitutional Court ruled that the abortion ban must be eased or repealed by parliament by 2020. Since 1953, South Korean women who got abortions could face up to a year in prison or a fine of up to 2 million won (~S$2400) except in cases of rape, incest, severe genetic disorders or health risks. The doctors who carried them out could also be imprisoned for up to 2 years.
The court’s decision was sparked by an appeal from a doctor who was charged for performing about 70 unauthorised abortions. Despite the law, illegal abortions are still conducted safely in registered hospitals (though very expensive and hard to find), and women are rarely prosecuted. However, the court said that the law limits “access to safe and timely procedures” and women’s rights activists claim it generates social stigma.
A Win for Women’s Rights?
Hundreds of “pro-choice” activists celebrated outside the courts when the decision was announced, calling it a major step forward for women’s rights. But just across the road were “pro-life” advocates who decried the decision as a violation of fetus rights, shouting “down with feminism”. This was the culmination of months of societal debate which manifested on TV, on the Internet, and in protests outside the courts from both sides.
The controversy is set to continue as politicians have until December 2020 to revise the law. In a country “highly influenced by evangelical Christianity”, women’s sexuality is still a taboo topic and anti-abortion sentiment is rife. Indeed, evangelical mega-churches are among the law’s main supporters. This has led conservative groups to believe they can influence politicians to minimise the easing of the ban.
While pro-choice advocates have certainly gained ground, they have a long way to go before they can claim victory.