SEOUL, April 11 (UPI) -- South Korea's Constitutional Court overturned the country's decades-long ban on abortion on Thursday in a landmark ruling that marks a major step for women's rights in a society where traditional gender roles are changing.
The nine-member judicial panel ruled 7-2 that the decades-old abortion ban is unconstitutional and ordered that the law must be amended by the end of 2020. In its verdict, the court said that criminalizing abortion prohibits a woman's "right to self-determination" and found that it imposed physical and psychological burdens on pregnant women as well as social and economic suffering.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said, "It's about time South Korea heeded the voices of the majority of South Korean women who have today won the right to determine what happens with their bodies and their lives. Now the National Assembly needs to move without delay to revise the law in line with this far-reaching court verdict and ensure women's rights are protected in law."
Abortion has been illegal in South Korea since 1953, one of the few wealthy and industrialized countries still prohibiting it. Exceptions are made only in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening circumstances.
With Thursday's ruling , the law remains in effect but legislators must pass a new bill based on the court's decision by Dec. 31, 2020. Outside the court in downtown Seoul, hundreds of activists on both sides of the issue gathered to await the decision.
Some waved placards that said "abolish the abortion ban" while others held up images of fetuses and signs equating abortion with murder. When the results were announced, cheers erupted on the pro-choice side, with chants of "we won!" ringing out, while anger and tears flowed on the anti-abortion side.
Shin Min-joo, vice chairman of South Korea's Labor Party, said she hoped the ruling would lead to more rights for women in South Korea.
"I hope this case will be a good start for Korean women to live more peacefully and have more freedom," said Shin, who spoke at a rally outside the court ahead of the ruling. "There's still a lot to be done, but this is a positive step."
Abortion opponents expressed disappointment at the outcome.
"I feel very sad," said Joon Il-kim, a mathematics professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. "I do not agree with the decision. There's a discrepancy between women's rights and [an unborn] baby's rights -- it is a small human on its own."
Joon said that his side would not give up the anti-abortion crusade.
"I have decided I will support the pro-life movement more eagerly," he said. "I have to speak up more for babies' rights."
In many ways, the power of the ruling was found in its symbolism. Abortion, while illegal, was readily available at clinics and the law was rarely enforced. A recent survey conducted by the Korea Institute of Health and Social Affairs found that 19.9 percent of women who have been pregnant at least once have had an abortion.
Yet between 2014 and 2018 only 64 abortion cases were prosecuted, with almost all resulting in suspended sentences or probation, according to data from the prosecutor's office published in the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper.
At the same time, abortions still had to be conducted in the shadows and a social stigma and threat of prosecution hovered over women who underwent the procedure. Vocal opposition has come from South Korea's significant Christian minority and conservative groups while Korea's plunging birth rate, one of the lowest in the world, has also added to the tension swirling around the issue.
The court decision Thursday reflects the rise of feminism in South Korea, a movement that in recent years has begun pushing back against deeply embedded gender inequality. South Korea ranked 115th out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum's report on the global gender gap in 2018, while The Economist magazine graded South Korea last in its 2018 "glass ceiling index," which measures the best countries to be a working woman.
The country has been roiled by its own #MeToo movement, which started at the beginning of 2018, while several high-profile cases involving secret spy cam recordings of women have sparked major public demonstrations.
In a statement, People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, one of the largest NGOs in South Korea, called Thursday's ruling "significant progress in strengthening the gender equality of women in society."
A call for reversing the abortion ban had been building for years. In August 2012, the Constitutional Court narrowly upheld the law, with a 4-4 tie decision. But the liberal-leaning Moon Jae-in administration has named six of the nine current justices to the court, which gave a sense of hope to pro-choice advocates before the ruling.
Public opinion has been evolving, as well. In a survey by pollster Realmeter released last week, 58.3 percent of respondents favored abolishing the abortion ban, a number that rose from 51.9 percent since just November of last year.
Under the existing abortion law, women face up to one year in prison or a fine of up to 2 million Korean won (roughly $1,750). Doctors performing the procedure face up to two years in prison. The case was brought before the Constitutional Court by female doctor who had been charged with performing almost 70 abortions. The complaint argued that the ban infringes upon a woman's right to choose.
In the aftermath of the decision, pro-choice activists and supporters began gathering on a nearby street to hold a celebratory rally. The mood was effervescent, as music played and speakers took to a small stage.
"It's a very belated decision, but I'm so glad it happened," said Lee Ah-hyun, 23, an education student at Ewha Women's University. "This law was here for 66 years, and it's only because of the rise of feminism in the last few years that it was finally changed. We still have a long way to go but this is a delightful start."