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Abortion in S. Korea: neither illegal nor legal

Despite 2019 Constitutional Court order, revision of abortion laws remains pending in National Assembly

By Lee Jaeeun

Published : March 7, 2024 - 19:03

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Image from Abortion Korea Image from Abortion Korea

Kim, a 33-year-old woman living in Seoul, was taken by surprise when she found out she was pregnant late last year.

With no intention of getting married or having a child of her own, she began searching for hospitals that would terminate the pregnancy for her. While searching online, Kim encountered numerous advertisements and blogs listing prices for abortions by vacuum aspiration. The prices varied according to the stage of pregnancy: 600,000 won ($450) before week 7 and 900,000 won before week 10.

She knew that abortion was no longer a crime after the Constitutional Court ruled in 2019 that criminalizing abortion was unconstitutional. But chaos soon engulfed her mind after she learned that it still wasn't legal either.

With France becoming the first country in the world to guarantee women the freedom to have an abortion in its constitution, the discussion on abortion in South Korea has resurfaced. However, with the status of abortion in South Korea still in a gray area, women like Kim remain legally and ethically insecure.

Korea's decades-old abortion ban, Act 269 of the Criminal Act, was ruled unconstitutional in April 2019. The Constitutional Court mandated that the National Assembly then revise the Criminal Act by Dec. 31, 2020.

However, the revision bills failed to pass before the deadline, technically nullifying abortion as a criminal offense on Jan. 1, 2021. Despite 17 proposed bills in the National Assembly to allow safe abortions, discussions have stalled with no progress. Without new laws clarifying the situation, women cannot legally be provided with any abortion services, such as affordable procedures or safe abortion pills.

“It is expected that discussions on abortion in Korea will continue like this without further progress for the time being. Since many politicians, including the Yoon Suk Yeol government and the ruling party, egg on anti-feminist sentiments as a strategy to win elections,” said Yoon Kim Ji-young, a philosophy professor at Changwon National University.

During his presidential campaign, Yoon had pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, arguing that its officials treat men like “potential sex criminals.” He also claimed feminism was to blame for the country’s low birth rate.

Other factors, such as the claims of conservative religious groups that do not want to acknowledge the legality of abortion in Korea, have made it difficult for abortion rights to be fully granted, Yoon Kim said.

Some say that in Korea, gender inequality is increasing, including high rates of physical and digital crimes against women, with the anti-feminist movement largely driven by disgruntled young men anxious about losing ground to women and looking to blame them for it.

Some conservative Christian and Catholic groups oppose the legalization of abortion here.

“Legalizing abortion will cause disregard for life and deepen the problem of the low birth rate as well as destroy family and marital order. Abortion should not be performed except in cases where the fetus threatens the life of the mother,” Moon Ji-ho, vice director of the Seongsan Bioethics Research Institute, a Christian bioethics organization, was quoted in Christian local media outlet The Kukmin Daily, Wednesday.

Access to safe abortions restricted

Normally, residents of Korea can receive medical procedures at a reasonable price, as the medical service has been included in the National Health Insurance Service. Treatments covered by the NHIS have predefined prices, preventing doctors from altering them.

Since medical procedures for abortion are not covered by national insurance, doctors can set prices based on market rates. There is no official data on the average cost of an abortion, but a 2021 survey by the Korea Women's Development Institute said that half of the interviewees paid over 800,000 won for the procedure.

Other than surgical procedures, other safe ways to terminate a pregnancy by taking medication have been gaining interest, but these are still not legal in Korea.

Local drugmaker Hyundai Pharm requested approval for mifegymiso, the Canadian brand name for mifepristone, from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety in 2021. The drug can be used in conjunction with misoprostol to terminate pregnancies, but it has not yet been approved. Neither mifepristone nor misoprostol, which are on the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines, have been approved by the ministry either.

Another woman surnamed Ko wrote online that she had decided to obtain the abortion pill through “Women on Web,” a Canadian nonprofit organization aiming to increase access to safe abortions and known for its online abortion service accessible in multiple countries.

However, she realized that she could not access the Women on Web’s website since the Korea Communication Standards Commission issued a ruling to block access to it from Korea in Dec. 2020, claiming that the website facilitates the sale of drugs without prescriptions or the involvement of pharmacists.

Ko wrote that she found out Women on Web had expanded access to their services through websites, such as “Abortion Korea,” so eventually she was able to get the medicine after consultation with its medical team and donating some money.

According to international organization Human Rights Watch, the KCC having blocked Woman on Web hinders the realization of the right to health information, not just about abortion but about sexual and reproductive health and rights in general.

The WHO's stance on the issue is that "Restricting access to abortion does not reduce the number of abortions. However, it dramatically affects whether abortions attained are safe."

It has also stated that medical abortions can be safely self-managed at home up to the 12th week of pregnancy, when information and support from health care providers are available (including via telemedicine services) without specialized medical care or direct supervision. It recommends the use of mifepristone followed by misoprostol.