Women activists hold a rally outside the court in Seoul on April 11. The yellow placards say 'Abolish punishment for abortion'. They later celebrated a landmark ruling against a law that some said put women at risk. Photo: Jung Yeon-je / AFP

In a move that signals the increasing empowerment of women in South Korea, the Constitutional Court ruled today that a 66-year-old law that criminalized abortion is inconsistent with the constitution, and called for it to be amended.

The court’s decision punts the issue to the National Assembly, where a change must be made by the end of 2020. However, decriminalization is effective immediately. Today’s majority decision by the judges follows an inconsequential split decision made by the Constitutional Court over the same issue in 2012.

The news was greeted with joy by activists outside the court, but the largest group of protesters on the scene were conservatives, many Christians, supporting the law. Some had turned up with children; many held placards saying “A fetus is a life.”

Different circumstances

The related law was enacted in 1953, the year the Korean War ended, as Seoul sought to increase its population following three years of slaughter.

But in 1953, South Korea was a highly conservative society and one of the poorest nations in the world, ruled by an authoritarian government that was democratic in name only. Today’s Korea is a vastly different country: An industrial powerhouse, a thriving democracy and a society in flux that is increasingly accepting of liberal social values.

Activists greeted the court ruling with joy, even though the law has only rarely been enforced in recent years – particularly as the government watered down the law’s provisions in 1973 in a bid to rein in high fertility rates.

Indeed, what data is available suggests that abortion rates are stratospheric: Some 169,000 abortions were conducted in 2010, the last year for  which data was available from the Health and Welfare Ministry, and one independent researcher suggested last year that 500,000 are conducted annually – in a nation with a population of 51 million.

Still the decision appears to follow prevailing social attitudes – among females at least: Last year, a government survey of 10,000 women found 75% were in favor of legal abortions. If it were legalized, doctors could be held accountable for botched procedures, a stigma would be lifted, and embittered, estranged male partners would lose a weapon – of publicly naming and shaming women who abort.

Some, however, suggested that today’s decision was long overdue.

“I would not go that far [calling it a victory]. I would say it is putting to right something that was skewed or biased against a particular gender,” Cho Hee-kyung, a professor of law at Hongik University in Seoul told Asia Times.

While Korea may be a highly advanced state in areas such as national infrastructure and high-tech gadget uptake, it has long been lagging in gender equality.

“If you look at overall global trends, even devoutly Catholic Ireland decriminalized it last year,” said Cho. “I think it was a long overdue situation.”

“When you look at the provision itself, it pressured the woman,” she added. “There was no express punishment for the other party that took part in the act that led to the pregnancy.”

Feminism in a male bastion

Men have long had a dominant position in Korean society. In 2017, South Korea was ranked 118 among 144 countries in terms of gender equality – putting the world’s 11th largest economy behind Gambia and Tunisia.

Still, feminist and women’s rights groups have been increasingly prominent over the last two years. The global MeToo movement has gained a following, and there have been a series of mass demonstrations by women protesting against an epidemic of spy-cam pornography, reinforced recently by shock allegations surrounding high-profile K-pop stars.

In 2016, a ripple of horror spread through Korean women after a man stabbed a woman to death in Seoul’s trendy Gangnam district. The killer said he had chosen his victim simply because he “hated women.”

“People who I talk to see [the Gangnam murder as] as a turning point for younger feminists,” Haeryung Kang, a reporter who has widely covered women’s issues in South Korea, told Asia Times. “The incident really helped bring in a whole lot more people… though I am not sure if feminism has become more mainstream.”

And just as there were protesters favoring the continued criminalization of abortion outside the court today, there is also a backlash against feminism.

“Gender politics is polarized here, there is a growing backlash against feminism… there is a growing number of women, as well as men, who consider feminism a dirty word,” Kang said.

“The backlash is from men, but it trickles down from the male community to the general population.”

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