South Korea: Top court orders reform of abortion laws in historic victory for women’s rights

Today’s ruling is a major step forward for the human rights of women and girls in South Korea. The country’s draconian laws have resulted in discrimination and stigmatization for generations of women and girls by forcing them to undergo clandestine and unsafe abortions.
Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International

Responding to a ruling by South Korea’s Constitutional Court that orders the government to decriminalize abortion in the country and reform the country’s highly restrictive abortion laws by the end of 2020, Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s East Asia Research Director commented:

“Today’s ruling is a major step forward for the human rights of women and girls in South Korea. The country’s draconian laws have resulted in discrimination and stigmatization for generations of women and girls by forcing them to undergo clandestine and unsafe abortions. The Constitutional Court has sent a clear message this must change, and in future the human rights of women and girls must be fully protected and respected.

“We urge the government to swiftly reform the Criminal Act and ensure access to safe and legal abortion services. The highly restrictive and punitive laws must change so that the health of women, girls and others who can become pregnant is no longer put at risk for fear they or the medical professionals that help them could be punished.

“Abortions will always happen, regardless of the law. This judgment means that they should be carried out safely and legally, and that women and girls are treated with compassion and respect for their human rights and their reproductive autonomy. Their dignity must be front and centre in any new legal framework on abortion.”

Background

Today’s judgment by the Constitutional Court followed a challenge by a doctor who has been prosecuted for carrying out abortions. The ruling requires that the National Assembly must reform the law by 31 December 2020.

South Korea’s current legal rules governing abortion criminalize the practice in most cases. Women who terminate a pregnancy can face fines of up to 2 million won ($1,850) or one year in jail. Medical professionals who assist with abortions can face prison terms of up to two years if convicted.

The law criminalizes abortions, and only allows for exceptions in cases of rape, incest, severe genetic disorders, specific diseases or if a woman’s or girl’s health is endangered by the pregnancy. In these limited instances, abortions must be performed within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy and are subject to spousal consent.

Access to safe and legal abortion services is a human right. Criminalization and other restrictions of abortions severely impact on women’s and girls’ rights to life, health, autonomy, privacy and to be free from violence, discrimination and torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.

International human rights law and standards require that abortion is fully decriminalized, and that States dismantle barriers that deny effective access by women and girls to safe and legal abortion.

Amnesty International believes that everyone should be free to exercise their bodily autonomy and make their own decisions about their reproductive lives including when and if they have children. It is essential that laws relating to abortion respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of pregnant persons and not force them to seek out unsafe abortions.