TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan’s constitutional court on Friday struck down an 85-year-old law that made adultery a crime punishable by up to a year in prison, a decision hailed by activists as a major step forward for women’s rights on the island.
The law is a “violation of a person’s sexual autonomy” and a “serious invasion of personal privacy,” Chief Justice Hsu Tzong-li said during a news conference announcing the ruling. While adultery may violate the marital promise, he added, it does not necessarily harm the public interest.
With the ruling, Taiwan has become the latest place in Asia to decriminalize marital infidelity — following South Korea in 2015 and India in 2018 — and one of the last non-Muslim places in the world to take it off the criminal books. Some U.S. states still have criminal adultery laws, though they are not typically enforced.
While Taiwan’s law did not differentiate between gender, activists say it has been disproportionately used against women: They have been 20 percent more likely than men to be convicted of the charge, according to the International Commission of Jurists, a human rights group.
Activists said the law was also used in a perverse way at times — to pressure victims of sexual assault not to file charges. Doing so could open a victim to adultery charges, which were far easier to prove in court than sexual assault, they said.
“On the surface, it looks like a gender-neutral law, but in practice it was very unfair for women,” said Lin Shiou-yi, director of the working group on research and development at Awakening Foundation, a local feminist organization.
Few of those found guilty went to jail but all were left with criminal records and many paid fines of about $3,000. From 2016 to 2019, more than 1,000 people were found guilty of adultery in Taiwan.
The evidence needed to prove adultery in court had spawned a cottage industry of private investigators hired by suspicious husbands and wives to spy on their spouses.
“The state’s interference into people’s marriages actually has a negative impact on marriage,” Lin Hui-huang, secretary-general of the Justice Ministry, said after Friday’s ruling.
Local conservative groups criticized the court’s ruling. Tseng Hsien-ying, president of the Coalition for the Happiness of Our Next Generation, called it “outrageous” in a Facebook post.
“The constitutional court is prioritizing sexual freedom over marriage and family,” the post said. “If you want sexual freedom and individual rights, then don’t get married. If you do marry, then you should abide by the marital promise and be loyal.”
Taiwanese society has been buffeted by dueling conservative and liberal forces in recent years: Just over a year ago, lawmakers in Taiwan voted to legalize same-sex marriage, a first for Asia.
But while public support for Taiwan’s adultery law has waned, it has remained strong. A government poll conducted in 2013 showed that 82 percent of Taiwanese supported the law. A more recent, 2017 poll by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation found that 69 percent of adults wanted to keep it on the books.
The court had last upheld the law in 2002.
Women’s rights activists said the abolition of the law did not amount to an endorsement of adultery.
“We hope that by removing the criminal punishment and returning marriage to the realm of civil law, people can learn healthier ways to deal with emotional loss and marital relations,” Chen Wen-wei, a board member of Awakening Foundation, said in a statement.