BANGKOK – In what abortion rights advocates called a partial victory, the Thai parliament has voted to make the procedure legal in the first trimester while maintaining punishments for women who go through it 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 is a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough: Anyone in Thailand who seeks an abortion after 12 weeks, except under conditions set by the country’s Medical Council, still faces fines and up to six months in prison.
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, wrote this week that Thailand’s new abortion law is a step forward, but the late restrictions still pose health risks. “When governments restrict abortion, women still have abortions – they just have more dangerous ones,” she wrote.
Ms. Barr said in an email on Thursday that abortion laws in Southeast Asia are still a patchwork quilt, ranging from total bans to total decriminalization. However, she said she saw progress in both Thailand and South Korea, where a court ruled two years ago that an anti-abortion law was unconstitutional.
“We hope these trials will help other governments in the region and beyond recognize that electoral restrictions violate international human rights law, and often domestic law, and need to be reformed,” said Barr.
Muktita Suhartono reported from Bangkok and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.