Activists stage a rally in front of the Parliament to call for abortion rights on Jan. 25, 2021.
Activists stage a rally in front of the Parliament to call for abortion rights on Jan. 25, 2021.

BANGKOK — The Senate on Monday endorsed a bill that would legalize abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy in compliance with a historic court rule – a move condemned by the Catholic Church leadership as “an immoral law.”

The amendment to the Criminal Codes aims to cement the legal protection for women seeking to terminate their pregnancy. Lawmakers hope the change will come into effect by Feb. 12, a deadline mandated by the Constitutional Court, even as the Church is launching a last ditch effort to stop its passage.

“Today’s session is historic,” Senator Kamnoon Sitthisamarn said on Monday. “We will try to wrap up the debate within one day so that the law could become effective within Feb. 12.”

The Senate eventually completed all of its three sessions required for debating a legislation by Monday night. The amendment is now pending an announcement on the Royal Government Gazette to become effective.

While abortion rights advocates say the new law would save countless women from illegal and often deadly procedures, senior officials of the Catholic Church are urging the faithfuls to oppose the effort, which they see as an infringement on “the rights of unborn children.”

Activists stage a rally in front of the parliament to call for abortion rights on Jan. 25, 2021.
Activists stage a rally in front of the parliament to call for abortion rights on Jan. 25, 2021.

“People get abortions because they want to get around the problem, they don’t want to solve the problem,” Fr. Pairat Sriprasert, director of pastoral care at the Catholic Bishop Conference of Thailand, said by phone.

“Our standpoint is clear. We oppose all forms of abortion since we hold that life is born after a zygote is formed,” Pairat said. “We must think about the rights of the unborn children as well.”

He continued, “People may argue that women want to get an abortion because they’re not ready to raise a child or are financially unstable, but there are solutions to these problems.”

About 1 percent of Thai population follows Christianity, though Roman Catholics are formally recognized as a faith group by the Thai state.

Priests have begun gathering signatures from churchgoers for a petition that urges the lawmakers to reconsider the bill. The Church also launched campaigns to raise public awareness of the Catholic’s view on abotion. Multiple Catholic organizations are set to meet on Thursday and hold a public discussion on why overturning the abortion ban is in violation of their religious dogma.

But Pairat conceded that he is not expecting the decision to be overturned.

“We will not go as far as staging a protest,” Pairat said. “But we will keep standing up for our belief. Although the law may eventually pass, the conscience prevails in this world. Actions have to be taken even though we are outnumbered in this Buddhist’s majority country.”

Key leaders of the Buddhist faith, which often preaches against abortions and views it as a maternal sin, have remained largely silent on the legal amendment. No major Buddhist groups have staged any public effort to protest the procedure either.

Unconstitutional

The bill passed by the Senate on Monday repealed Article 301 of the Criminal Codes, which criminalizes almost all cases of abortion, as well as holding the doctors who perform them liable to prosecution.

Under the law, which was passed in 1956, women found guilty of terminating their pregnancy face up to three years in prison. The maximum jail term is raised to five years for doctors who assisted them.

But a landmark verdict handed down in November by the Constitutional Court rules that Article 301 violates women’s rights to their life and body. The court also recommended that the article be amended accordingly within 365 days.

Safe and legal abortions were possible prior to the court’s verdict, thanks to a clause under Article 301 that allowed doctors to perform the operation if the women’s “mental health” is at risk, but pro-abortion activists argued the grey area did not offer enough protection for both women and doctors.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone is born free, that’s clear enough,” Supecha Baotip, an activist from Tamtang, an abortion advocacy group, said in an interview. “There should be no law forbidding access to medical services.”

Activists stage a rally in front of the parliament to call for abortion rights on Jan. 25, 2021.
Activists stage a rally in front of the Parliament to call for abortion rights on Jan. 25, 2021.

It was Tamtang who filed a legal challenge to Article 301, which eventually led to the historic ruling by the Constitutional Court.

Supecha added, “I want everyone to understand that it is necessary for some women to undergo the procedure. No one else knows best except themselves.”

The amendment to Article 301 sailed through the Lower House without any significant opposition, with 276 MPs voted in favor, eight against, and 54 abstained. The proposed text of the amended law stated that women have the rights to abortion within 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Supecha said she understands concerns expressed by religious groups about the abortion law, but she warned that women’s lives would be at risk if the ban is not overturned.

“I understand that it’s their beliefs, but if you close the door, women will go through the window,” said Supecha. “We can’t really stop them by criminalizing abortions, but we can offer them a safe access to the procedure with this bill. This helps save lives and solve women’s problems.”