SOUTH KOREA – The government is still blocking legalisation of abortion

The government’s refusal to update laws is part of wider gender discrimination.

Years after a South Korean court ordered the government to respect the right to access abortion care, South Korean women and girls are still unable to get this necessary sexual and reproductive service.

On 17 May this year, a South Korean court rejected an appeal by Women on Web (WoW) and Open Net Korea, a digital rights civil society organization, to unblock the WoW website. The Korea Communications Standards Commission had blocked the website in 2019, claiming it violated the country’s Pharmaceutical Affairs Act by connecting women in need of abortion pills, which have not been legalized in the country, to overseas pharmacists.

However, in 2019, South Korea’s Constitutional Court also overturned the country’s decades-long abortion ban. The case that compelled the court to act was part of a years-long effort by a broad coalition including feminists, healthcare providers, disability rights advocates, lawyers, youth activists, and religious groups. The group sought and obtained broad support for reform, in the form of amicus briefs supporting the case, including one from a government ministry. In the decision, they left the next steps to the National Assembly, but a Ministry of Justice bill to partially legalise abortion failed to pass, and the Assembly failed to reform the law otherwise by the end of 2020, even though the Court had required them to do so. The result was that abortion became fully decriminalized in 2021, but it was not legalized.

Since then, abortion has been left in a legal grey zone, creating uncertainty about where and how women and girls can access affordable and safe abortions. Amendments are also needed to include abortion as a covered medical procedure under the national insurance plan.

The lack of progress is unsurprising, given that the president was elected on an anti-feminist agenda, promising to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. The government has also started to eliminate the word “women” from policies originally addressing women’s rights issues, such as violence against women, claiming there is no systemic gender discrimination.

Data tell a different story. South Korea has the largest gender pay gap among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. For 12 consecutive years, South Korea ranked last on the Glass Ceiling Index, which measures factors like salaries, childcare and representation in senior positions to evaluate women’s chances of equal treatment at work.

The government’s disregard for the right of women and girls to access abortion care is part of a broader picture of extreme gender discrimination. The South Korea government should unblock the WoW website and amend laws, including to legalize abortion pills – included in the World Health Organization’s Essential Medicines list – so women and girls can access safe and affordable abortions, to protect their autonomy, health and well-being. And, according to the country’s own Constitutional Court, it is the law.

SOURCE: Susanné Seong-eun Bergsten, Officer, Women’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch News, 11 June 2024 ; See also: South Korea – decriminalised but not legal. ICWRSA Newsletter, 7 September 2023. PHOTO: Joint Action for Reproductive Justice rally in central Seoul, calling for complete decriminalisation of abortion, 17 August 2022. Newsis.