Abortion in Thailand: A New Law Coming into Effect
The Law at Present
Article 301 of the current Criminal Code outlaws all abortions except when the pregnancy endangers the woman’s physical or mental health, she is less than 15 years old or a victim of rape, or when the unborn child is proven to possess serious deformities or disabilities. It imposes maximum imprisonment of three years and a fine of 60,000 baht on the woman. If the pregnancy is more than 12 weeks old, the maximum penalty is six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 baht.
The rigidity of present laws against abortion can be drawn from the Buddhist belief in the perceived sinfulness of murder committed by a mother on her unborn child and the association of abortion with promiscuity. Buddhism is the majority religion in Thailand and Buddhist principles teach believers to fear and shame in committing sins, such as those acts perceived to be involved in seeking and securing an abortion. She may first try to obtain a safe abortion from a doctor. But if he refuses out of fear of breaking the law, his professional ethics and personal conviction, the woman may feel compelled to take the risk of securing illegal abortion as her only alternative. In a recent report, the World Health Organization pointed to unsafe abortion as the cause of one in eight female deaths in Asia alone.
The Clamor for Change
Under the outgoing law, a woman could secure safe abortion of a pregnancy within the first trimester from a doctor who agrees to perform it. But the rise in unwanted pregnancies among teens and the lack of clarity in the law demanded a change in it. An amendment would endow health professionals with the means to perform a safe and lawful abortion with confidence and without fear of breaking the law. It would also give women greater control over both their problem pregnancy and life itself. No letup campaigns for the change in the law have been staged far and wide. Official health reports reveal that there were 35 teen pregnancies in every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 in 2018 alone.
The Response: a Law Amended
The Medical Council and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Thailand, along with other leading authorities in reproductive health recommended the amendment. The Medical Council stated that pregnancies of no more than 12 weeks could be safely terminated without entailing risks on the mother. It also justified that a woman undergoing abortion is subjected to an experience painful enough to deserve the added threat and torment of criminal prosecution or punishment. The two health bodies also said that they had been applying this time frame of pregnancies in performing abortions but that it only needed to be formalized into law. The Cabinet heeded their stand and agreed to amend Articles 301 and 305 of the Criminal Code to allow women to secure safe abortions of up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. It will protect both the woman and the doctor from criminal prosecution.
The amendments need to first pass the Coordinating Committee of the House of Representatives and then sent as an urgent proposal to the Parliament. It is expected to take effect before February next year.
The new law will simply and clearly replace Article 301 of the Criminal Code, which forbids and penalizes abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. It will formalize the decision of the Constitutional Court rendered last February 19 on the existing abortion laws as unconstitutional in that they violate the rights of women to their own body and life. It also failed to render the man accountable for pressuring the woman to resort to and seek an illegal abortion. The preamble of the amendment recognizes the seriousness of the issue of abortion and the right of the unborn child to life. But neither does it overlook the rights of the woman and her liberties as the very vessel of the pregnancy and whose existence precedes that of the unborn child. Denying a woman of the choice to terminate a pregnancy would be an injustice and violate her fundamental right to her own body. She possesses that natural and fundamental right to dignity as a human being. As such, she is entitled and possesses the liberty to either perform or stop performing any action pertaining to her body and her life as long as her acts do not transgress the rights of another person.
The new law also reduces the penalty on illegal abortions, considering the physical and emotional trauma and suffering a woman incurs from the experience.
Amended Section 301 retains penalties but reduces them. The securing of abortion for pregnancy beyond 12 weeks can be penalized with existing maximum imprisonment of three years as compared to only six months under the new law. Fines are also reduced from 60,000 bahts to only 10,000 bahts. And amended Section 305 stipulates that a woman who secures an abortion within 12 weeks of pregnancy has no liability before the law under four conditions. One is when the pregnancy is a physical or psychological risk to her, Second is if the offspring has confirmed strong chances of developing a serious physical or mental disorder, disease, or disability. The third is if the pregnancy is the result of a rape. And fourth is if abortion is the only available option to the woman.
The Planned Parenthood of Thailand hailed the new law as a definitely positive step towards the long-awaited recognition and promotion of women’s human rights. It expressed relief that couples who are not ready to have children need not resort to illegal means in ending an unwanted pregnancy.
The amendment also strengthens the reputation of Thailand as a progressive and open-minded culture in Southeast Asia where abortion laws are largely diverse. Abortion in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Singapore are available upon the mere request of the woman. Vietnamese women are also entitled to abortion free-of-charge. Malaysian women can obtain it if the pregnancy puts their physical or mental health at risk. And the laws of Indonesia, Myanmar, and Brunei provide similar reliefs to their women.
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