Calls to end South Korea abortion ban reach top court


A man walking past the Constitutional Court in Seoul. The court is due to review a challenge from a doctor who was prosecuted for performing nearly 70 abortions.
A man walking past the Constitutional Court in Seoul. The court is due to review a challenge from a doctor who was prosecuted for performing nearly 70 abortions.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - A decades-old abortion ban that activists say endangers women - even if it is only sporadically enforced - will be challenged in South Korea's supreme court this week.

Along with Ireland, which holds a referendum on reforming strict abortion laws on Friday (May 25), South Korea is one of the few industrialised nations where the procedure is illegal except for instances of rape, incest and when the mother's health is at risk.

Women who terminate a pregnancy face a fine and a year in jail, while doctors who carry out terminations can get up to two years behind bars.

In reality, the 1953 law rarely results in prosecutions.

But there are growing calls for change as activists argue criminalisation leaves women vulnerable to unsafe procedures and the changing whims of politicians as well as blackmail from their partners.

"It's anachronistic," said researcher Kim Dong Sik at the state-run Korean Women's Development Institute. "We are still stuck in 1953."

Calls to repeal the law have gained traction in recent years with more than 230,000 people signing a petition to legalise abortion last year (2017).

On Thursday, the Constitutional Court is due to review a challenge from a doctor who was prosecuted for performing nearly 70 abortions.

But opposition is staunch in a country that remains conservative towards female sexuality and highly influenced by evangelical Christianity.

Historically, enforcement of the law has been patchy as South Korea morphed from an impoverished nation to one of Asia's wealthiest economies.

"The country has a history of tacitly encouraging abortion and contraception when it needs to reduce population, and when low birthrate became an issue, it clamped down on abortion," said non-profit advocacy group Womenlink's Jay Kim.

In the 1960s, when South Korea was poorer, abortion buses roamed the streets as authorities fretted about overpopulation and pushed a semi-official "one child per family" policy.

The court hearing on Thursday comes a day before Ireland holds a referendum on whether to repeal its even more restrictive abortion ban that forces women to head overseas to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

In contrast, abortions are commonplace and obtainable in South Korea.

A survey conducted by the Korean Women's Development Institute last month found one in five women who have been pregnant have had an abortion. Only 1 per cent said they had a legal reason to terminate the pregnancy.

In these instances, women need proof that they were raped, or - in the case of their health being at risk - need permission from their partner. The procedure must be carried out within the first six months of the pregnancy.

The ban also increases health risks, with women forced to seek surgery from underground physicians and unable to claim reimbursement on their health insurance.

"They have to sign a contract saying they won't hold the doctor responsible for any legal matters or complications," explained Dr Yoon Jung Won, an obstetrician at Green Hospital in Seoul.

The law also means that the vast majority of terminations are carried out surgically, Dr Yoon added, at a cost of around US$5,550 (S$7,438), despite the availability of less invasive options.

"It's been 30 years since abortion pills were invented but they have yet to be introduced (here)," she said.

Many women also live in fear they might be reported to the authorities by their partners after break-ups.

South Koreans are deeply divided over the issue, with religious groups leading the charge against overturning the ban.

A group of university professors - mostly devout Catholics - filed a petition last month demanding the ban remain in place.

"There is nothing in the world that comes before the life of a human being," they said.

South Korea is home to multiple megachurches, many of them evangelical and deeply influenced by anti-abortion campaigns in the United States.

In 2012, the Constitutional Court dismissed a case challenging the law.

The judges were split and for a law to be determined unconstitutional, it needs a majority of six justices on the nine-member bench.

But activists who favour changing the law know they now have a rare opportunity.

The court, now under a more liberal government, boasts a string of new justices while several judges - including its chief justice - have publicly shown a willingness to reconsider the law.

Even if the bid fails, rights activists say there are steps the government can take to ease the burden on women who fall pregnant.

Lawyer Lee Han Bon said authorities could start by raising the welfare single mothers receive.

"It's unfair to legally punish women for making the hard choice of terminating her pregnancy when not a penny is provided for single mothers," he said.