"The law criminalising a woman who undergoes abortion of her own will goes beyond the minimum needed to achieve the legislative goal and limits the right of self-determination of the woman who has become pregnant", the court said.
"Embryos completely depend on the mother's body for their survival and development, so it can not be concluded that they are separate, independent living beings entitled to rights to life".
The ruling was personal for many who showed up in front of the Constitutional Court ahead of the decision Thursday. "Women deserve to be happy as much as we want to be today", activist Bae Bok-ju told AFP.
Ham Sooyeon, leader of the non-profit Korea Pro-Life group, said before the ruling that rather than easing the abortion restrictions, South Korea should find ways to improve support systems for poor, single mothers and their children and change public views on single mothers. When the results were announced, cheers erupted on the pro-choice side, with chants of "we won!" ringing out, while anger and tears flowed on the anti-abortion side.
Critics have questioned the law's effectiveness, since few people are actually being punished for abortion. Under Thursday's ruling, the ban will be automatically lifted on January 1 2021 unless new legislation is introduced sooner by parliament to follow the court order.
Calls to scrap the abortion ban have gained momentum in recent years amid a growing feminist movement.
With Thursday's ruling, the law remains in effect but legislators must pass a new bill based on the court's decision by December 31, 2020.
On Wednesday an opinion poll found 58% of the public favour abolishing the ban. According to prosecution data, there have been approximately only 15 indictments for abortion every year since 2015, and in many of them, the defendants received suspended sentences.
Abortion numbers have been dropping, with 49,764 estimated for women between 15 and 44 in 2017, down from 342,433 in 2005 and 168,738 in 2010, as birth control measures spread and the population of women in that age range falls, says the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
Advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have weighed in to urge the country to end the ban. However, the Catholic church expressed deep regret. "For one, we have to make sure that the procedure will be covered by the national health insurance", Kang said. The country's doctors also welcomed the decision with the Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists saying: "This ruling will ensure women's rights to health". Additionally, doctors who perform the operations can also face jail time for up to two years.
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