South Korean court orders easing of decades-old abortion ban

South Korea's Constitutional Court chief judge Yoo Nam-seok center and other judges sit for the ruling on decriminalization of abortion at the court in Seoul on Thursday

One campaigner, Lim - who had kept her abortion experience a secret for more than 25 years - said the court's decision will allow women to make their own decisions about their future without the fear of being shamed.

The court ordered lawmakers to pass a revision reflecting the court's decision by December 31, 2020.

The court said the new law should, under certain conditions, allow terminations in the early stages of pregnancy, according to Yonhap, and that doctors should no longer face criminal charges for carrying out the procedure.

The ruling is final and can not be appealed, court officials said, but current regulations will remain in effect until they're replaced or repealed. "The exceptions outlined by the Mother and Child Health Law fail to take into account diverse and extensive socioeconomic reasons behind abortions, such as its effect on a woman's academic or workplace career, and financial problems such as an insufficient income or resources to raise a child".

South Korea is one of the few developed countries that still criminalises abortions, with exemptions made for rape, incest, severe genetic disorders or when the mother's health is in danger.

Under the current law, women who have abortions can be fined or imprisoned for up to a year.

Most other countries in the 36-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the so-called most developed countries, allow abortions for broad social and economic reasons.

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South Korea's health and welfare ministry estimated that about 169,000 illegal abortions were performed in 2010.

The law was reviewed after a challenge from a female doctor who was prosecuted for performing nearly 70 abortions. There has been a series of heated panel discussions on TV and internet programs; activists, both for and against, have for months stood with placards near the court. Dozens gathered on Thursday.

"I believe this ruling frees women from shackles", said Kim Su-jung, a lawyer representing the plaintiff, a doctor charged with conducting 69 illegal abortions.

"Keeping my abortion a secret has been making me feel unnecessarily guilty for all these years", said the 50-year-old who asked for her forename not to be used to protect her anonymity.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of Korea expressed "deep regrets" saying, adding: "The ruling denies the rights to life of embryos who do not have the ability to defend themselves". The case has polarized debate in South Korea in recent weeks, with anti-abortion activists carrying placards featuring fetuses also rallying outside the court. "This judgment means that they should be carried out safely and legally, and that women and girls are treated with compassion and respect for their human rights and their reproductive autonomy", said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International's East Asia Research Director, in a statement responding to the ruling.

According to a survey on 504 adults released Wednesday by Realmeter, 58.3 percent of the respondents were in favor of abolishing the abortion ban.

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.

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