Thailand takes momentous step to legalise abortion
In a defining moment for male-dominated and conservative Thailand, the country is now shifting its stance from anti-abortion to pro-choice.
Parliament last month (January) voted to make abortion legal during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Previously, any termination was illegal unless it threatened the health of the expectant mother or had resulted from rape.
While abortion has long been a highly sensitive issue in Buddhist-majority Thailand, a ruling by the Constitutional Court spurred the government to action over the past year.
Women’s rights versus foetus rights
On February 19 last year, the court ruled that the Criminal Code violated the current charter by prioritising foetus’ rights over women’s rights to their own body. The ruling added that the period of pregnancy might be considered as a factor to balance the protection of both women and foetus’ rights.
The Constitutional Court concluded that the Criminal Code should be updated to keep pace with the changing context, including medicinal advances that make abortions safer, as well as protect medical workers involved in abortion services.
This major ruling came in response to a petition filed by Dr Srisamai Chaeuchat, a government doctor and member of the RSA (Referral System for Safe Abortion). She turned to the court after police arrested her in 2018 for providing abortion services via the RSA.
Founded in 2014 and financed by the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, RSA is a network of doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists and public-health workers with a mission to provide safe abortions for women in need. RSA members say many Thai women risk their lives each year by seeking abortions at illegal clinics because they lack access to safe, legal facilities.
About 300,000 pregnancies are ended in the country each year, according to the Women’s Health and Reproductive Right Foundation of Thailand’s website. About 300 out of every 100,000 women seeking abortions die as a result of unsafe procedures, it adds, though it does not say how many of these abortions are illegal.
What does the new law bring?
The bill to amend the abortion law is set to take effect by February 12, the deadline set by the Constitutional Court.
Proposed by the government, the bill not only broadens the scope of legal abortions but also lowers punishments for illegal termination.
Currently, women can only lawfully get an abortion if their pregnancy seriously threatens their physical/emotional health or resulted from sexual assault. Women who violate this law face up to three years in jail and/or a maximum fine of Bt60,000.
The new bill, however, will allow the termination of any pregnancy up to 12 weeks. Meanwhile abortions for pregnancies at a more advanced stage will only be permitted if they endanger the health of the mother or baby, or resulted from rape. Penalties for breaking the law have been reduced to six months in jail and/or a maximum fine of Bt10,000.
Why has Thailand banned abortion for so long?
Thailand’s abortion ban has been in place since 1956 and reflects a Buddhist taboo that regards killing a foetus as sinful. Efforts to change the abortion law failed in the face of conservative public opinion that cited the need to protect “innocent” life. For decades, women seeking abortions were condemned as criminals, sinners, and even killers by many.
The tide has gradually shifted over the years, however, and opposition to abortion is no longer as fierce as it once was.
Debates on abortion in recent years have balanced the religious viewpoint against the struggles and suffering of women denied the choice to end an unwanted pregnancy. When women are not ready to give birth, other social and economic problems often follow. Meanwhile their children are often born into lives of hardship.
Asked whether all abortion should be legalised, 92 per cent of 13,000 respondents to an online survey last July answered yes. The survey was conducted by Spectrum, a media outlet focusing on gender issues.
Pro-choice campaigners still not happy
Pro-choice academic Sulaiporn Chonwilai, however, said the upcoming law change does not go far enough. She backs the stance of other activists in her network – that women should be able to legally get an abortion no matter what and no matter when.
“It is their right to seek an abortion if they want,” she said. “Punishment for abortion should, in fact, be completely scrapped.”
Sulaiporn said parliamentarians had always neglected to listen to opinions from doctors providing abortions and women who used their services.
Her network was established in 2010 with a mission to help women with unwanted pregnancies get access to safe abortion. Previously, it asked the House of Representatives to consider raising the threshold for legal abortion under special circumstances from 12 weeks to 24 weeks, but the proposal was ignored.
Meanwhile an abortion bill prepared by the Move Forward Party, in line with the network’s proposal, was also shot down in Parliament.
Abortion law overseas
According to a United Nations report on data gathered up to 2019, 98 per cent of countries allow abortion in cases where the pregnancy endangers the woman’s life. Other common conditions for legal abortion are preserving physical (72%) or mental health (69%), in cases of rape or incest (61%), and in cases of foetal impairment (61%).
Abortion for economic or social reasons is accepted in 37 per cent of countries. Abortion only on the basis of a woman’s request is allowed in 34 per cent of countries, including in the United States, Canada, most of Europe and China.
Many countries also specify different gestational limits for legal termination of pregnancy, for example 12 weeks for abortion-on-request or no limit at all to save a woman’s life.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk