Abortion in South Korea

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Crowd at landmark ruling.
Protest sign.
Constitutional Court of South Korea, April 11, 2019, 65-year-old-ban on abortion overturned.

Abortion in South Korea is illegal in most circumstances, but illegal abortions are widespread and commonly performed at hospitals and clinics.[1] The South Korean Constitutional Court on April 11, 2019 ruled the abortion ban unconstitutional and ordered the law's revision by the end of 2020.[2][3]

Sex-selective abortion, attributed to a cultural preference for sons, is widespread.[4] Despite a 1987 revision of the Medical Code prohibiting physicians from using prenatal testing to reveal the sex of the child, the ratio of boys to girls at birth continued to climb through the 1990s. The 1987 law was ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in 2008.[5]


The government of South Korea criminalized abortion in the 1953 Criminal Code in all circumstances. The law was amended by the Maternal and Child Health Law of 1973 to permit a physician to perform an abortion if the pregnant woman or her spouse suffers from certain hereditary or communicable diseases, if the pregnancy results from rape or incest, or if continuing the pregnancy would jeopardize the woman's health. Any physician who violated the law could be punished by two years' imprisonment. Self-induced abortions could be punished by a fine or imprisonment.[6][7]

The abortion law was not strongly enforced, especially during campaigns to lower South Korea's high fertility rate in the 1970s and 1980s. As the fertility rate dropped in the 2000s, the government and anti-abortion campaigners turned their attention to illegal abortions[4][7] and the government stepped up enforcement of the abortion law in response.[8]

Debate concerning the future of abortion regulation in South Korea has gained traction both in internet chatrooms and government offices. Until South Korea’s recent ruling that declared anti-abortion laws unconstitutional, the anti-abortion camp in South Korea predominately advocated for a general crackdown on abortions.[9]

In 2009, legislators took a small step towards cracking down on abortions in South Korea by "removing certain diseases off the list justified for the use of legal abortions and revising the deadline for legal abortions to twenty-four weeks from conception instead of twenty-eight weeks."[9]

Key political players in South Korea were responsible for extensive anti-abortion campaigns. The Minister of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, Jeon Jae-hee, stated that "even if [the government doesn’t] intend to hold anyone accountable for all [..] illegal abortions in the past, [they] must crack down on them from now on." Similarly, Rep. Chang Yoon-seok, of the Grand National Party, stated that "[t]he most important thing will be for the doctors to understand that abortion is a serious crime."[9]

In January 2010, President Lee Myung Bak decided it was "time to start the debate" of revising the Mother and Child Health Law and scheduled public hearings. This, along with shifting public opinion, encouraged the government to commence a public relations campaign to discourage abortions, which included subway posters that read: "With abortion, you are aborting the future."[9]

The topic of abortion was never discussed as a human rights issue in South Korea. The National Human Rights Commission (TNHRC), a national advocacy institution for human rights since its founding in 2002, noted that the issue of abortion was a "controversial issue in the ‘Right to Life’ section of its 2007 National Action Plan."[9]

Aside from TNHRC, major non-governmental human rights advocacy groups, like Minbyun–Lawyers for a Democratic Society and People’s Society for Participatory Democracy, have ignored the issue.[9]

Obstetricians later emerged as a powerful voice for anti-abortion sentiment in Korea as a product of ethical and moral concerns.[10]

Much of the ensuing debate has focused on whether the government should crack down on illegal abortions, and whether the law should be modified.[5][7] In September 2017, campaigners filed a petition on the website of Moon Jae-in, the President of South Korea, calling on the government to amend the law by permitting the sale of the abortion pill mifepristone.[8] In November 2017, the office of the president announced in response that the government would review the abortion law.[11] In 2018, the Constitutional Court heard a case which challenged the constitutionality of the abortion law.[12][13] The court's ruling was delayed until court vacancies were filled.[14] The Constitutional Court on 11 April 2019 ruled the abortion law unconstitutional and ordered the law's revision by the end of 2020.[2]

Legislation and laws[edit]

The Korean Criminal Code (1953)[edit]

Abortion in South Korea has been made illegal since the introduction of the Korean Criminal Code (also known as The Penal Code in South Korea) in 1953 particularly because of the two provisions, Article 269 and 270, of the Korean Criminal Code.[7][15]Article 269 outlaws both self-induced abortions by the pregnant woman herself and abortions performed by medical professionals with the pregnant woman’s request or consent, stating criminal penalty for each condition. [7][16]Article 270 specifically prohibits medical practitioners, licensed doctors or other medical professionals, from performing abortions even with the pregnant women’s request or consent.[7][17] The criminal penalty varies from 1 year’s imprisonment or a fine of 2 million won (approximately $1,750) if the abortion is self-induced by the pregnant woman herself to 10 years’ imprisonment if the abortion is performed by medical practitioners with or without the pregnant woman’s request or consent and cause death to the woman.[7][18] In general, criminal penalties for medical professionals who perform abortions are much stronger than for pregnant women. Additionally, if a doctor is involved in abortion, the license of the doctor will be suspended for a maximum of 7 years.[7]

In 1922, a special congressional committee tried to pass the revised Articles 269 and 270 by introducing lessened thresholds and penalties pertaining to the crime of abortion. However, the crucial part of its attempt failed to pass the National Assembly which was Conservative-controlled at that time.[7]

The Korean Criminal Code was first introduced in 1953, the year when the Korean War ended. The post-war conditions feature a drastic population decline and social chaos. Many explanations tracing the history and legislative purpose of Article 269 and 270 propose that these two provisions were used to address post-Korean War conditions, especially by promoting the sanctity of lives and population growth. [19]

The Mother and Child Health Act (1973)[edit]

Introduced in 1973, the Mother and Child Health Act states five special circumstances under which the abortion is legally allowed.[20]The five circumstances are:

  1. when the pregnant woman or her spouse has any eugenic or genetic disability or disease;
  2. when the pregnant woman or her spouse has any infectious disease;
  3. when the pregnancy is a result of rape or quasi-rape;
  4. when the pregnancy happens between two individuals who are legally unable to marry (such as blood relatives in incestuous relationships);
  5. when the continuation of pregnancy could potentially harm the health of the pregnant woman.[7][21]

However, there are several reasons why the applicability of Mother and Child Health Act might be narrow in practical cases. First, in some cases, the Supreme Court ruled that an abortion was regarded as illegal even if the fetus was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome.[7] Second, in regards to the third condition (when the pregnancy is a result of rape or quasi-rape), the stigma associated with rape might prevent pregnant women in South Korea from openly seeking legalizations of their abortions,[7] and the legal concept of rape has limited meanings that could potentially dismiss many cases.[22]Moreover, the Mother and Child Health Act requires a spousal consent in order for the pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion based on these circumstances, which might create practical complications for women to obtain legal abortions.[7] The fifth condition (when the continuation of pregnancy could potentially harm the health of pregnant women) narrows the "harm" of pregnancy to merely harm of the woman’s health, which ignores the possible socio-economic reasons that might invoke a pregnant woman’s attempt to seek an abortion.[7][22][23]

The Korean Medical Service Act (revisions in 1987 and 1994)[edit]

The revision of the Korean Medical Service Act in 1987 prohibits medical practitioners from examining or assisting in examining the pregnant woman to determine the sex of the fetus.[22][24]Further, the medical provider is banned from disclosing the sex of the fetus to the pregnant woman, members in her family, or any other people during the pregnancy.[7][25]Although this provision does not explicitly mention abortion, it potentially prohibits sex-selective abortions that are largely due to the preference of male fetuses in South Korea. South Korea has undergone rapid economic and social development in the 1980s, during which time period the birth rate decreased significantly. Many people in South Korea started to determine the sex of the fetus with the help of diagnostic technology, which resulted in plenty of female feticides due to male preference.[22]

In 1994, the Korean Medical Service Act was revised to provide criminal penalties for medical professions. Medical professionals who disclose the sex of the fetus could be punished with a maximum of 3 years' imprisonment or a fine of 10 million Won (approximately $8,450).[22] However, the sex ratio at birth (male to female) has changed from 1.14 (114 boys were born at birth for every 100 girls) in 1986 to 1.07 (107 boys were born at birth for every 100 girls) in 2016, which suggests a decline of male preference.[22]

Constitutional Court ruling decriminalizing abortion (April 11, 2019)[edit]

On April 11, 2019, seven out of nine judges in the Constitutional Court in South Korea ruled that it is unconstitutional to criminalize abortion in South Korea. The Court has granted lawmakers the time until December 31, 2020, to revise the laws (provisions in the Korean Criminal Code), but the provisions still remain effective during this period of time. If the legislators cannot successfully revise the abortion law before this deadline, the provisions in the Korean Criminal Code pertaining to the crimes of abortion that criminalize abortion in South Korea for 66 years will become null and void.[26][27]

The movement for decriminalizing abortion in South Korea started to gather more momentum since 2016. In 2017, a petition signed by more than 235,000 people was used to call for the decriminalization of abortion by lifting the abortion ban.[27] In late 2018, a poll released by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs reveals that 75% of women aged 15 to 44 think of the abortion law as unfair and want it to be revised.[26][27]Among the respondents, 20% of women stated that they had obtained an abortion even though it is illegal in South Korea.[26]

Abortion rate[edit]

Using a 2005 survey of 25 hospitals and 176 private clinics, one study estimated that 342,433 induced abortions were performed that year (about 330,000 of them illegal), which would imply an abortion rate of 29.8 abortions per 1000 women aged 15–44. The rate was higher among single women than among married women.[28] The Ministry of Health and Welfare estimated that 169,000 induced abortions were performed in 2010. Other researchers, including Park Myung-bae of Pai Chai University, estimate that there may be as many as 500,000[12][29] or 1 million abortions per year.[7]

More recently, the number of abortions performed per year was estimated to have declined to 50,000 in 2017.[2]


  1. ^ "How to make abortion rarer". The Economist. 3 December 2016. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  2. ^ a b c "S Korea must end abortion ban - court". BBC News. 2019-04-11. Retrieved 2019-04-11.
  3. ^ Case 2017-127. Text: https://ecourt.ccourt.go.kr/coelec/websquare/websquare.html?w2xPath=/ui/coelec/dta/casesrch/EP4100_M01.xml&eventno=2017%ED%97%8C%EB%B0%94127
  4. ^ a b Choe, Sang-Hun (5 January 2010). "South Korea Confronts Open Secret of Abortion". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  5. ^ a b Wolman, Andrew (2010). "Abortion in Korea: A Human Rights Perspective on the Current Debate Over Enforcement of the Laws Prohibiting Abortion". Journal of International Business and Law. 9 (1).
  6. ^ "Republic of Korea". Abortion Policies: A Global Review (DOC). 2. United Nations Population Division. 2002. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
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  8. ^ a b "A campaign to legalise abortion is gaining ground in South Korea". The Economist. 9 November 2017. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  9. ^ a b c d e f "South Korea: Stop criminalization of abortion". Human Rights Documents Online. Retrieved 2019-06-14.
  10. ^ Choe, S. H. (January 10, 2010). "A Korean Doctors' Group Wants to Halt Abortions". New York Times. ProQuest 1467516088. Retrieved May 27, 2019.
  11. ^ "South Korea to review whether or not to abolish anti-abortion law". Reuters. 26 November 2017. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  12. ^ a b Rich, Motoko (13 January 2018). "Push to End South Korea Abortion Ban Gains Strength, and Signatures". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 January 2018.
  13. ^ Lee, Claire (24 May 2018). "Abortion ban challenged at Supreme Court". The Korea Herald. Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  14. ^ Haas, Benjamin (11 November 2018). "South Korea's nascent feminist movement turns to abortion ban". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 December 2018.
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  26. ^ a b c Seo, Yoonjung (2019-04-11). "South Korea to legalize abortion after 66-year ban". CNN. Retrieved 2019-06-14.
  27. ^ a b c "Women in South Korea Demand an End to Dangerous Abortion Ban". Time. 2019-04-10. Retrieved 2019-06-14.
  28. ^ Ahn, Hyeong Sik; Seol, Hyun-Joo; Lim, Ji-Eun; Hong, Sung-hee; Lee, Sun Young; Park, Moon-Il; Kim, Soon Duck; Kim, Hai-Joong (January 2012). "Estimates of induced abortion in South Korea: Health facilities survey". Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Research. 38 (1): 324–328. doi:10.1111/j.1447-0756.2011.01701.x. PMID 22136060.
  29. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/11/south-korean-court-rules-abortion-ban-must-be-lifted

External links[edit]

Media related to Abortion in South Korea at Wikimedia Commons