BANGKOK – The Thai parliament has decided to make abortion legal in the first trimester while maintaining penalties for women who undergo an abortion later in their pregnancy.
Senate lawmakers voted 166-7 Monday to amend a law providing prison sentences of up to three years for anyone who has an abortion and up to five years for those who perform an abortion. With the new version, every woman can terminate a pregnancy in the first 12 weeks.
Proponents say the measure doesn’t go far enough: anyone in Thailand who has an abortion after 12 weeks, except under the conditions set by the country’s Medical Council, is still facing 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 non-profit organization in Thailand that campaigns for women’s rights.
“In order to pass this type of law, the participation of women needs to be prioritized, especially women who have experience of abortion,” she added. “The consultation process gave a role to lawmakers and human rights lawyers, but not women who had experience with abortion or activists.”
According to the Medical Council, pregnancies can be terminated after 12 weeks by a qualified professional if they are the result of sexual assault or endanger the mother’s physical or emotional health. Abortion is also allowed if the fetus is known to have abnormalities.
Many women in Thailand have found ways to get abortions under the previous restrictions, but the country still has a high teen pregnancy rate. According to government figures from the United Nations Population Fund, about 1.5 million babies were born to teenage mothers in Thailand between 2000 and 2014, and nearly 14 percent of all pregnancies in 2016 were teenagers.
Supecha Baotip, an activist with Tamtang, an abortion advocacy group in Thailand, said she was concerned that abortions would continue underground. “I don’t want women with pregnancies older than 12 weeks to fear that they will not be able to have the procedure and therefore not look for it legally,” she said.
Ms. Supecha said she will be closely monitoring the Ministry of Health to see whether the early abortion services are expanding and doctors are pressuring to comply with the new rule.
“Any hospital can offer this service, but not because of the attitudes of the doctors,” she added.
Last February, the Thai Constitutional Court ruled that the country’s previous abortion law was unconstitutional and gave the government 360 days to change it.
Two revisions were proposed, one by the cabinet and one by the opposition Move Forward Party. The House of Representatives later rejected the Move Forward version, which would have allowed abortions for up to 24 weeks.
Some elements of the Buddhist-dominated culture of Thailand are socially conservative. However, Thailand also has relatively progressive policies on gender and LGBTQ issues.
Heather Barr, interim co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, said in an email Thursday She saw progress on abortion rights in both Thailand and South Korea, where a court two years ago ruled that an anti-abortion law was unconstitutional.
But subsequent restrictions in Thailand, Ms. Barr wrote this week, still pose health risks. “When governments restrict abortion, women still have abortions – they just have more dangerous ones,” she wrote.
Ms. Matcha, the activist, said many Thai women decide to have an abortion after 12 weeks. “Most women still face the same problems despite this law: fear, stigma and breaking the law,” she said.
Muktita Suhartono reported from Bangkok and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.