Thailand legalizes early-term abortions but keeps other restrictions

Lawmakers in the Senate voted 166-7 on Monday to amend a law that had imposed prison terms of up to three years for anyone having an abortion
Last Updated 28 January 2021, 16:28 IST

Thailand’s Parliament has voted to make abortion legal in the first trimester, while keeping penalties in place for women who undergo it later in their pregnancies.

Lawmakers in the Senate voted 166-7 on Monday to amend a law that had imposed prison terms of up to three years for anyone having an abortion, and up to five years for those who perform one. The new version allows any woman to end a pregnancy in the first 12 weeks.

Advocates say the measure doesn’t go far enough: Anyone in Thailand who has an abortion after 12 weeks, except under conditions set by the country’s Medical Council, still faces potential fines and up to six months in prison.

“For us, this law is not a real development,” said Matcha Phorn-in, the executive director of Sangsan Anakot Yawachon, a nonprofit organization in Thailand that advocates women’s rights.

“To make this kind of law, you have to prioritize women’s participation, especially women who have experience having abortions,” she added. “The deliberation process gave roles to lawmakers and human rights lawyers, but there are no women who had experience with abortion or activists in the process.”

The Medical Council says pregnancies can be terminated by a qualified professional after 12 weeks if they are the result of a sexual assault or pose a threat to the mother’s physical or emotional health. Abortion is also permitted if the fetus is known to have abnormalities.

Many women in Thailand found ways to get abortions under the previous restrictions, but the country still has a high teenage pregnancy rate. About 1.5 million babies were born to teenage mothers in Thailand between 2000 and 2014, according to government figures analyzed by the United Nations Population Fund, and nearly 14% of all pregnancies in 2016 were among adolescents.

Supecha Baotip, an activist with Tamtang, an abortion advocacy group in Thailand, said she feared that underground abortions would continue.

“I don’t want women with pregnancies older than 12 weeks worried that they cannot undergo the procedure and thus not seek it out legally,” she said.

Supecha said she would watch closely to see whether the Health Ministry extends early abortion services and pressures doctors to comply with the new rule.

“Any hospital can provide this service, but because of the doctors’ attitude, they don’t,” she added.

In February, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that the country’s previous law on abortion was unconstitutional, and it gave the government 360 days to change it.

Two revisions were proposed, one by the Cabinet and another by the opposition Move Forward Party. The House of Representatives later rejected the Move Forward version, which would have allowed abortions until 24 weeks.

Some elements of Thailand’s Buddhist-dominated culture are socially conservative. Yet Thailand also has relatively progressive policies on gender and LGBTQ issues.

Heather Barr, the interim co-director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, said in an email Thursday that she saw progress on abortion rights both in Thailand and in South Korea, where a court ruled two years ago that an anti-abortion law was unconstitutional.

But late-term restrictions in Thailand, Barr wrote this week, still pose health risks.

“When governments restrict abortion, women still have abortions — they just have more dangerous ones,” she wrote.

Matcha, the activist, said that many Thai women decide to have an abortion after 12 weeks.

“So most women, even with this law, are still facing the same problems: fear, stigma and breaking the law,” she said.

(Published 28 January 2021, 16:28 IST)

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