South Korea is set to legalize abortion after a decades-long ban was struck down, but women’s rights campaigners have said that those who undergo the procedure are still likely to be “punished in the eyes of society.”
In a landmark verdict last week, the South Korean Constitutional Court ruled the ban — which dates from 1953 — unconstitutional and asked the government to legalize abortion by the end of next year.
Under the ban, as it currently stands, women who have abortions can be fined and jailed for up to a year, while doctors who perform the procedure at the woman’s request can face imprisonment of up to two years.
The ruling was lauded as a victory for gender equality, but women’s rights activists said that conservative values mean women — even doctors — would still face stigma, hampering access to abortion.
“Even if women are no longer criminals under the law for abortion, they will still be punished in the eyes of the society,” said Jiann Woo, who has organized protests against the ban since 2016.
“Abortion is still seen as immoral here — it is only something that the ‘single, naughty girls’ would do,” added the 25-year-old student, cofounder of Femidangdang, a Seoul-based women’s rights group.
The Roman Catholic Church, with 5 million adherents out of a population of 51 million in South Korea, has taken a firm stance against the ruling.
“A nation has a responsibility to protect its people’s life and safety under any circumstances,” Archbishop of Seoul Andrew Yeom Soo-jung said, adding that he is “worried” over the ruling.
“Every life, from the moment of conception, should be protected as a human being,” he said in a statement.
South Korea became one of the last developed countries where abortion is a crime after Ireland voted in a referendum last year to overturn its highly restrictive abortion laws.
A survey by polling firm Realmeter this month showed that more than 58 percent of South Korean respondents favored scrapping the ban, but little more than 30 percent wanted it retained.
The court ruling comes amid a burgeoning feminism movement in South Korea after tens of thousands of women took to the streets last year to protest against illicit filming of women, or so-called “spycam porn.”
Yet traditional, patriarchal views on women and their sexuality are still deeply rooted in the East Asian country, which ranked 115 out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for last year.
“Abortion is still a huge taboo, because our society has strict views on women’s sexuality,” said Yong, a South Korean student living in Germany who underwent an abortion last month.
“I made a stupid mistake, but I knew I had options,” said the 27-year-old, who asked not to be named in full to protect her privacy.
“Many friends back home who had abortions had a very different reaction — it was like the end of the world for them,” Yong said.
Exemptions under current South Korean law allow abortions within 24 weeks of pregnancy in cases involving rape, hereditary disease or danger to a mother’s health.
Abortion numbers have been dropping in South Korea, with nearly 50,000 estimated for women aged between 15 and 44 in 2017, down from about 340,000 in 2005, as birth control measures spread and the population of women in that age range falls, the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs said.
However, campaigners have said that the ban has driven women to turn to black-market abortion drugs, and pushed the cost of surgical abortion prohibitively high with the fees for a late-term termination averaging about US$5,000.
In many cases, women must also give a written promise that they will not implicate the doctor.
The constitutional court challenge stemmed from the case of a doctor who was charged with conducting nearly 70 illegal abortions.
Beyond the Catholic Church, some of the world’s largest megachurches and church-affiliated groups in South Korea have led the protest against making abortion legal.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea has said that the ruling denies embryos’ rights to life, while a group calling itself the National Alliance Against Abolition of Abortion decried the procedure as an “act of murder.”
The issue is divisive among the medical community, too.
Gynecologist Yoon Jung-won, who has conducted hundreds of abortions for rape survivors, said that some doctors have called for the right to not perform the procedure after the court lifted the ban.
“Some doctors don’t want to perform abortion simply because it is a stigmatized job. It’ll take time and effort,” said Yoon, who works in a private hospital in Seoul that specializes in sexual assault cases.
“Law and policy change is the first [step] — culture and social change is the last and the most difficult one,” Yoon said.
At the hospital where she works, Yoon has had to turn away many women over the years — from teenage girls who become pregnant to women who feel they are too poor for another child, or those who are trapped in an abusive relationship.
The government has said that it would respect the court’s decision and take steps to comply, but some campaigners such as Woo fear next year’s deadline will give religious groups time to lobby for restrictions.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a Catholic and a liberal, has not stated clearly if he supports abortion, but has called for more discussions to build consensus.
Ryu Min-hee, a lawyer in the legal team that mounted the successful court challenge, said that the onus is now on the government to ensure abortions are accessible to women and doctors are adequately trained.
“It’s the government’s duty to implement the ruling,” Ryu said. “It’s not a crime, it’s women’s rights.”
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