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Long an Illegal ‘Sin’, Abortion Inches Closer to Legality in Thailand

Employees hide their faces after their illegal abortion clinic was raided in Pattaya. (Photo: Pattaya Mail, with permisson)
Employees hide their faces after their illegal abortion clinic was raided in Pattaya. (Photo: Pattaya Mail, with permisson)

Long outlawed as a sin in Buddhism, abortion could finally become legal in Thailand with the government considering amendments to the Criminal Code to allow pregnancies to be terminated in their first 12 weeks.

Aborting an unborn child long been illegal in the overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, but each year countless women have risked dangerous back-alley abortions at illegal clinics by dubious practitioners using substandard equipment who may or may not have medical degrees.

One of two proposed amendments proposed by the Cabinet would modify a law that makes abortions illegal in Thailand except under special circumstances.

If the bill is passed by the House of Representatives early next year, abortions for women who “insist on terminating their pregnancies” will be legal for up to three months after conception.

The second amendment, if passed, will make it legal for doctors to perform such abortions.

Women’s rights advocates have hailed the government’s plan to legalize abortion, although some religious groups may oppose the move.

Thai women’s rights advocates have long been campaigning for the legalization of abortions, insisting that backstreet abortions can be unsafe and place women at grave medical risks. Around Asia, one in eight maternal deaths are caused by unsafe abortions, according to the World Health Organization.

In Thailand, meanwhile, many of those seeking to have an abortion are teenagers who become pregnant by accident and are unwilling or unable to raise a child.

In 2018, an estimated 72,566 girls in Thailand between the ages of 10 and 19 gave birth, an average of 199 births every day, according to the Department of Health.

Of these young mothers, nine percent gave birth to their second child, while as many as 2,385 girls aged between 10 and 14 gave birth that year, according to official figures.

“Abortion is inevitably a solution when unwed teenage girls face harsh social stigma in a society which fails to provide them with safe sex education, proper counseling and other services such as halfway homes for unwed mothers and foster and adoption services,” Nattaya Boonpakdee, coordinator of the Women’s Health Advocacy Foundation, was quoted as saying.

That is why legalizing abortion will be of benefit to many young Thai women with unwanted pregnancies, according to Somchai Kamthong, a spokesman for the Thai chapter of the international women’s rights group Planned Parenthood, which is a leading advocate of legalizing abortion.

“Those [women] who are really not ready to have children [will no longer] have to be as ashamed or secretive,” Somchai told a local newspaper. “Perhaps it will make their decision easier.”

The drafters of the new amendment appear to agree. They argue that access to medically safe abortion needs to be made available via legal means to women in the early stages of their pregnancies because not doing so impinges on their right to their own body and can result in their “unfair treatment.

“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,” they write in the draft amendment.

However, legalizing abortion in Thailand also has moral implications in the Buddhist nation where the practice is widely perceived to be against a key religious tenet — that of refraining from killing. In addition, by aborting unborn children, those who do it are also believed to deprive a soul about to be reincarnated of a chance to do so.

“In Thai society, abortion goes against some people’s feelings,” Somchai from Planned Parenthood pointed out. “Some doctors won’t carry out abortion procedures based on their own morals because they think it’s a sin.”

The longer, original version of this story first appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.