But the ruling helps ensure pregnancy is a personal choice, said Lee Ga-hyun, who joined a protest against the law after she saw a friend risk her life using illegal medication for an abortion. It said the current abortion ban will be repealed if the parliament fails to come up with new legislation by then.
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and can not be appealed, court officials said, but current regulations will remain in effect until they're replaced or repealed. Punishing abortions for social and economic reasons without exception is seen as unconstitutional because it excessively restricts women's right to self-determination.
South Korea's current laws governing abortion are some of the strictest in the developed world, criminalizing the practice in most cases, and only allowing for exceptions in cases of rape, incest or if a woman's or girl's health is endangered by the pregnancy.
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).
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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In a statement, People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, one of the largest NGOs in South Korea, called Thursday's ruling "significant progress in strengthening the gender equality of women in society".
"Abortions will always happen, regardless of the law". Dozens gathered on Thursday. 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. Some shook their placards and shouted: "Abolish the anti-abortion law!"
South Korean women's rights activists react after the constitutional court's ruling on decriminalization of abortion during a rally against the abortion ban outside the court in Seoul on April 11, 2019.
Shin Min-joo, vice chairman of South Korea's Labor Party, said she hoped the ruling would lead to more rights for women in South Korea.
"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. More than 20 pro-life activists held placards carrying images of fetuses and message like "Who can speak for me?" and "Don't kill me, please".
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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".
It is not clear exactly how many abortions take place in South Korea. When the pollster conducted the survey in 2012, 53.1 percent of respondents said abortion should not be legalized. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus one percentage point. According to government records, there were only 15 indictments on abortion-related cases in 2013.
Despite the restrictive law, abortions are widely accessible in South Korea and can be carried out safely. But it's not easy to find hospitals offering illegal abortions, and they usually charge high prices because the procedures are not covered by medical insurance programs.
Six of the nine justices were appointed under the Moon Jae-in administration and at least three had publicly said the ban on abortion should be reconsidered.
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