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After ruling on abortion ban in S. Korea, what now?

“22 weeks of pregnancy” at center of discussion on legalizing abortions

After the Constitutional Court ruled the abortion ban as unconstitutional, South Korea faces the tough task of revising the criminal code that has criminalized abortions, by the end of 2020.

One of the core points lawmakers have to agree on for the revision is the number of weeks of pregnancy during which women are allowed to have abortions.

In the verdict, the court said that criminalizing all abortions -- even in the early stages of pregnancy -- restricts pregnant women’s rights to self-determination and there needs to be discussions on whether abortion for “social and economic reasons” could be allowed.

The court set “22 weeks into a pregnancy” as a bar determining whether a fetus could be considered a human being, which could be interpreted that women should be able to choose to get an abortion before that period.

“22 weeks is about the time when a fetus can survive alone without the mother,” the court said. “It is also enough time for women to exercise their rights to self-determination about maintaining pregnancies and giving birth.”

Four out of seven justices, who said the current criminal code banning abortions is unconstitutional, noted that all abortions should be legalized within 14 weeks of pregnancy without any restrictions and by women’s own decisions.

But the court’s suggestion is only a guideline. Lawmakers and the government are expected to discuss the extent to which abortions will be allowed before passing a revision.

Abortions have been illegal in South Korea since 1953, except in cases of rape, incest or severe hereditary disorders and when the mother’s health is at risk. All abortions, without exception, have been illegal after 24 weeks of gestation.

Most abortions are estimated to take place within 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Articles 269 and 270 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes abortion, will remain effective until lawmakers pass a related bill by Dec. 31, 2020. If the lawmakers fail to do so, the articles will become invalid from Jan. 1, 2021.

The progressive Justice Party’s Rep. Lee Jung-mi was the first to submit a bill that stipulates all abortions within 12 weeks of pregnancy should be allowed.

Regarding the court’s decision, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea said it will revise the criminal code to minimize confusion that could be caused by absence of the law. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party said it will come to a consensus after carefully listening to all sides.

The revision is expected to legalize all abortions within 14 weeks of pregnancy and attach conditions after the period, pundits say. 

Activists call for swift action

Women’s rights activists have hailed the court’s decision as a “change in history” that puts an end to the state’s control of women’s bodies.

They now call for swift action by lawmakers and the government to improve the infrastructure for women to have better access to safe abortions, correct information and counselling about ending pregnancies -- key to women’s rights to health.


“Ending pregnancies should be settled as a necessary, safe medical service,” said Oh Jung-won, an obstetrician and gynecologist, at a press conference held Friday.

She argued that doctors and medical students should receive training about performing abortion procedures; sex education should include specific information on contraception options; and abortion pills such as Misoprostol Pills should be imported immediately.

The activists also oppose setting the length of pregnancy as a bar for legal abortions.

“Getting an abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy is a burdensome decision for women. But if they still make the decision, they have major reasons for that. If they are punished, they would be forced into dangerous abortions again,” said Jay, one of the heads of an association of women’s rights groups fighting against the abortion ban, at the press conference.

By Ock Hyun-ju (