BANGKOK — A leading family planning organization on Wednesday welcomed a legal amendment that would allow abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and protect doctors who perform the operations from prosecution.
The change to Thailand’s Criminal Codes was approved by the Cabinet on Tuesday, and is expected to come into effect by February 2021. A spokesman for the Planned Parenthood Association of Thailand said the protection of rights to abortion would help save women from undergoing unsafe prodecures to terminate their pregnancy.
“In Thai society, abortion goes against some people’s feelings. Some doctors won’t carry out abortion procedures based on their own morals, because they think it’s a sin,” spokesman Somchai Kamthong said by phone.
“But now that will become law, clinics, doctors, and hospitals can provide this service more widely.”
The amendment passed by the Cabinet replaced Article 301 of the Criminal Codes, which said abortion is illegal except in several cases, with a passage stating very simply that women have the rights to abortion within 12 weeks of pregnancy.
“For those who are really not ready to have children, then they don’t have to be as ashamed or secretive,” Somchai said, referring to the bill. “Perhaps it will make their decision easier.”
The change followed the Feb. 19 ruling by the Constitutional Court, which struck the current abortion laws as unconstitutional, citing its violation of women’s rights to their life and body.
The preamble of the amendment draft acknowledged that abortion is a deeply sensitive issue, but added that a law cannot only focus on the fetus’ rights to life without taking into consideration the rights and liberties of the woman who carried the pregnancy – and whose existence preceded the fetus.
“[Such interpretation] would result in the unfair treatment of the woman and infringe on her rights over her own body, a natural right that is fundamental to dignity of a human individual,” the document said.
“Each individual is entitled to rights and liberties to perform, or refrain from performing, any actions on their own lives and bodies, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.”
The amendment also calls for decriminalizing doctors who perform abortions under 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Despite the seemingly groundbreaking nature of the amended law, Thailand’s current abortion does not impose a sweeping and uncompromising ban on the procedures.
For instance, Article 301 exempts abortion from legal punishment if the woman’s physical or mental heath is in danger, the woman is under 15, the fetus is found to have serious disabilites or deformities, or the pregnancy was a result of sexual assault.
Another clause was also added in 2005 allowing women to terminate pregnancies if they pose “harm to women’s physical and mental health.” Many clinics and hospitals perform abortion under this exemption, by interpretating that distress caused by the pregnancy counts as harm to one’s mental health.
But the vague wording of the law does deter some medical workers from performing abortions, out of fear that they could be prosecuted. Some doctors also cite the law to refuse abortion for patients – which often leads many to seek abortions at illegal clinics that can result in serious complications.
The amendment helps clear up any concerns or grey areas for doctors performing the operations, according to Somchai from the Planned Parenthood Association of Thailand.
“This 12-week period has already been used by doctors at clinics, but the problem is that it hasn’t been written as law,” he said.
Both of Thailand’s leading authorities of reproductive health, including the Medical Council of Thailand and Royal Thai College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, recommended the 12-week window.
Backlashes from conservatives are likely to follow – Thai Buddhists often see abortion as murder and maternal sin, and many in the older generations associate abortion with promiscuity.
“Buddhist principles taught that one must have fear and shame of committing sins,” prominent monk Phra Phayom Kalayano said in a TV interview. “Now the channel is open for people to have no fears and no shames for committing sins. The law backs it now. Human hearts will be tempted. From now on, girls will claim they don’t know it’s wrong.”
Thailand also appears to be on the track to the reputation as one of the more open countries towards abortion in Southeast Asia, which vary widely in abortion law.
Vietnam, Cambodia, and Singapore allow abortion at the woman’s request, with free access to abortion available in Vietnam.
Abortion in Malaysia is illegal unless a woman’s physical health or mental well-being is at risk. A similar clause can be found in Indonesia, Myanmar, and Brunei, while the Phillipines and Laos ban abortion altogether.
The World Health Organization estimates that almost one in eight maternal deaths in Asia are a result from unsafe abortion.