The ban infringed a woman’s “right to self-determination”, the Constitutional Court said in its ruling, ordering the government to draw up legislation to ease the rules by the end of 2020.
If the government fails to agree new regulations, the abortion ban will automatically lapse at that time, the nine-judge panel said.
Abortion has been illegal in South Korea since 1953 except for a few exceptions, such as when a woman is raped. Both the outright ban on women receiving abortions, and a separate law that made doctors who conduct abortions liable to criminal charges, were deemed unconstitutional.
“The law criminalising a woman who undergoes abortion of her own will goes beyond the minimum needed to achieve the legislative purpose and limits the right of self-determination of the woman who has become pregnant,” the court said in its ruling.
The court had previously upheld the ban in 2012 in a close decision that evenly split what was then an eight judge panel.The court’s ruling reflects the trend toward decriminalizing abortion, as the number of actual cases where abortion was criminally punished had been falling.
Only eight new cases of illegal abortion were prosecuted in 2017, down from 24 in 2016, according to South Korean judicial data.
The number of abortions taking place has also been dropping in South Korea, due to the increased use of birth control and a fall in the total number of women aged 15-44.