South Korea's top court strikes down abortion ban

Abortions have been largely illegal in South Korea since 1953, though convictions for violating the restrictions are rare. The court determined that it is unconstitutional to punish women if they have an abortion or punish doctors who have performed an abortion with a woman's consent.

The court ordered lawmakers to pass a revision reflecting the court's decision by December 31, 2020.

The ruling is final and can not be appealed, court officials said, but current regulations will remain in effect until they're replaced or repealed.

"The law criminalizing a woman who undergoes abortion of her own will goes beyond the minimum needed to achieve the legislative goal and limits the right of self-determination of the woman", it said in its ruling.

South Korea is one of very few developed countries with an anti-abortion law. There are exemptions, with current law allowing abortions within 24 weeks of becoming pregnant for medical purposes such as a hereditary disease or the pregnancy causing grave danger to the health of the mother, or in the case of pregnancy through rape.

Most other countries in the 36-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the so-called most developed countries, allow abortions for broad social and economic reasons.

"If the goal of this abortion law is really to protect all lives, then I should have been shamed for undergoing my second and third abortions, as well as my first", Lim told AFP. There has been a series of heated panel discussions on television and internet programs; activists, both for and against, have for months stood with placards near the court. Dozens gathered on Thursday.

Many women whose relationships are breaking up fear their husbands or partners could report their past terminations to the authorities, according to activists. Some shook their placards and shouted: "Abolish the anti-abortion law!"

"Through the Constitutional Court's decision, Korea declared itself as a country accepting murder of a fetus in the name of the right to self-determination", said an association of 77 civic groups in favor of the abortion ban in a statement.

Religious belief is widespread in South Korea, and some of its evangelical mega-churches are among those defending the ban.

Housewife Mok Youn-hee was in tears and said she was "heartbroken" by the court decision.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of Korea expressed "deep regrets" saying, adding: "The ruling denies the rights to life of embryos who do not have the ability to defend themselves".

It's not clear exactly how many abortions take place in South Korea. They mostly cited worries about difficulty in continuing their studies and jobs, economic problems and a desire to wait, according to the survey conducted by the state-run Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. A survey by polling firm Realmeter last week found that more than 58 percent of South Korean respondents favored scrapping the ban, while a little over 30 percent wanted to keep it.

The current case was filed in 2017 by a female doctor who was prosecuted in 2013 for conducting 69 abortions. Data shows that there have been just 15 indictments for abortion every year since 2015, with many defendants receiving suspended sentences, according to Yonhap.

Despite the restrictive law, abortions are widely accessible in South Korea and can be carried out safely.

Moon, a liberal, appointed five of the current constitutional court justices, raising hopes that the abortion ban would be overturned, with the court's chief justice among those who had come out publicly in favour of change.

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