SEOUL • South Korea's Constitutional Court yesterday overturned a ban on abortion that has stood for more than 65 years, saying in a landmark ruling that the current law unconstitutionally curbs women's rights.
In a statement, it said the ban, and a law making doctors liable to criminal charges for abortions done with the woman's consent, were both unconstitutional.
"The abortion ban limits women's rights to pursue their own destinies, and violates their rights to health by limiting their access to safe and timely procedures," the court said in a statement.
"Embryos completely depend on the mother's body for their survival and development, so it cannot be concluded that they are separate, independent living beings entitled to rights to life."
Bursting into tears of joy and celebrating, hundreds of women - including teenagers and females with disabilities - cheered wildly in front of the Constitutional Court in central Seoul, where the official ruling was announced.
"Women deserve to be happy as much as we want to be today," activist Bae Bok-ju told Agence France-Presse.
But duelling demonstrations outside the courthouse highlighted persistent divisions in opinion.
"How could you kill a baby that's growing inside you? Abortion is murder," said Ms Kim Yeong-ju, a 47-year-old mother of two, who demonstrated in favour of the ban.
Seven of the nine justices ruled the law unconstitutional, and two dissented.
The law had prescribed jail for up to a year or fines of up to two million won (S$2,370) for women who underwent an abortion. It also set terms of up to two years in jail and seven-year licence suspensions for medical professionals, including doctors, who provided abortions at the woman's request.
Calls to repeal the law had gained traction as the country's growing feminist movement gathered momentum, but support for the ban had also been staunch in a country that remains conservative on female sexuality and highly influenced by evangelical Christianity.
The constitutional court last upheld the law in 2012, saying that abortion would "end up running rampant" if not punished. The court was split evenly then, four to four, as one seat was vacant. Seven years later, an opinion poll on Wednesday showed 58 per cent of the public were in favour of abolishing the law.
In a statement, the government said it would respect the decision and take steps to comply.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE