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CWA # 430, 21 February 2021

Abortions, Legislations and Gender Protests
In Thailand, the new abortion law poses more questions

  Sukanya Bali

Thailand amends a law that allows abortion in the first trimester, but women’s rights are still least heralded. 

In January 2021, the lawmakers in the Senate voted 166 to 7, to bring in a new amendment to abortion law, which legalizes abortion in the first trimester. After 12 weeks if a woman gets an abortion, she will be imprisoned for up to 6 months and will be liable to pay a fine of 10,000 baht or face both. The opposition party Moves Forward Party proposed, ‘allowing abortion until 24 weeks,’ which was rejected by the House of Representatives.

Matcha Phorn-in, the executive director of Sangsan Anakot Yawachon, a nonprofit organization, said “this law is not a real development, to make this kind of law, you have to prioritize women’s participation, especially women who have experience having abortions”. She also said, “The deliberation process gave roles to lawmakers and human rights lawyers, but there are no women or activists in the process.”

There are three major issues relating to Thailand, abortion and the new legislation.

First, the historical evolution of the law
Abortion law has been in contestation for more than four decades. 1973 marked the beginning of public acknowledgement of abortion and for the first-time public debates concerning legal reforms were held. Since the 1970's the health ministry provided family planning services and by 1976, government health stations started offering free contraceptive pills, the IUD, and sterilization. In 1981, after several years of campaign by doctors, students and other progressives, the house of representatives passed the abortion bill by 79 votes to 3, in the country. Groups, motivated by religious convictions lobbied against the reforms, and the bill never passed the Senate. In 2005 medical council issued a regulation, which explicitly interpreted both physical and mental health as a possible factor of abortion.

Last year, in February 2020, Thailand's constitutional court had ruled the country’s previous law as unconstitutional and gave the government 360 days for reform. The law-imposes prison for up to three years for anyone having an abortion and five years for those who perform it. As per the country's set guideline by Medical Council, in exceptional cases, a woman can get an abortion in case of legally proscribed sexual relations like rape, mother’s physical and emotional health, and abnormalities in the fetus.

Second, the politics of abortion
The debates on reforms of abortion law often reach a political impasse between the conservative forces and the reformist voice in the country. The conservative Theravada Buddhists which account for more than 90 percent majority in the country believe, ‘abortion as against the teachings of Buddhism’. They believe it is a sin. Institutionalized Buddism rejects abortions but the average Thai Buddhist's attitude towards abortion takes a middle ground which states that the Thai public is willing to allow abortion in certain circumstances. In 1981, when the abortion bill was passed the conservative forces who were the opposition protestors shaved their heads and marched, to seek support from the head of the Buddhist clergy in protest to the bill. They emerged as the most significant anti-abortion lobby in the country. 

The reformist voices continue to demand the complete decriminalization of abortion. The outrage was witnessed in the conservative sections when reformist Buddhist monk Phra Shine Waradhammo who is known for his support for LGBTQ rights, supported the decriminalization of abortion. The International organization, Human Rights Watch, NGOs call for complete decriminalization of abortion, so that women can fully exercise their reproductive rights.

Third, the role of women in Thailand
Women are one of the most ignored sections in society. For abortion, many women consume herbal medicine known as ‘ya satri’ or ‘yak hep leuat’. As per WHO, teen pregnancy accounts for 15 per cent in Thailand. Thai department of health show 72566 teens gave birth in 2019. Abortions in many cases lead to deterioration of health, infection, and in many cases death due to the lack of medical care. Women also faces forced abortion due to poor financial condition. 

Historically the role of women in decision-making was minimal, even in matters concerning women’s rights. Illegal abortion entails risky procedures that adversely affect the health of women and is a concern for women in society. But their participation in the passing of the new abortion law has been mostly neglected. However, in the recent democratic protests in Thailand in the second half of 2020, for the first time, many young female protestors were seen at the forefront. With the ongoing demand for democratic reforms in Thailand, they also demanded expanding LGBTQ and women rights.

In conclusion, the law in a conservative society is sensitive
Abortion remains a politically sensitive issue in a society based on conservative religious dogmas. These new reforms may directly benefit some sections of women who seek abortions due to their family pressure or socio-economic reasons. This may also be a small step toward women's empowerment and for their well-being.

However, in Thailand's political landscape, reformist voices are turning louder,  as an increasing number of young people demand more individual rights, gender equality, and democracy.

The above commentary is also published on our exclusive IPRI portal, a platform with a special focus on peace and conflict issues.


About the Author
Sukanya Bali is a Project Associate with the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. As part of her research focus, she looks into conflict in Afghanistan and China's soft power in South Asia.

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