South Korea's Constitutional Court ruled on Thursday as "unconstitutional" a 66-year-old law that made abortion a crime punishable by up to two years in prison, calling for its amendment in a landmark decision that signals a major change in various aspects of society.
"The provision of self-abortion prohibits abortion for all pregnant women in a completely and uniformly manner and punish violators with the only exceptions prescribed by the Maternal and Child Health Law", said one of the justices who ruled the law inconsistent with the constitution.
In 2017, more than 235,000 people signed a petition urging South Korean President Moon Jae-in to decriminalize abortion, saying it was unfairly penalizing the actions of women.
The court's nine-justice panel said that the parliament must map out legislation to ease the current anti-abortion regulations by the end of 2020.
The current case was filed in 2017 by a female doctor who was prosecuted in 2013 for conducting 69 abortions.
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). The doctor claimed the ban was against women's right to pursue happiness in terms of planned pregnancies and access to a safe medical procedure.
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.
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.
"I'm very disappointed", Song Hae-jung, 55, head of a citizens' coalition for the abortion ban, said outside the court gates. 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. However, the Catholic church expressed deep regret. In a recent survey of 10,000 women aged between 15 and 44, about 7.6 per cent, or 756 respondents, said they had undergone an abortion.
They mostly cited concerns about difficulty in continuing their studies and jobs, economic problems and a desire to wait, according to the survey conducted by the state-run Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
Although prosecutions are rare, pro-abortion activists argue that the fear of jail time leaves women in a vulnerable position - unable to pay their medical bills or seek follow-up treatment.
Yet between 2014 and 2018 only 64 abortion cases were prosecuted, with nearly all resulting in suspended sentences or probation, according to data from the prosecutor's office published in the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper.
"To fulfill the tasks of the state which is to realize human dignity, the country can prohibit abortion, which deprives the fetus' life", they said.
The court decision also comes at a time when South Korea is struggling to cope with a low birth-rate.