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Thailand

Thailand ready to break Buddhist principle by legalizing abortion

Women's rights groups hail government plan as a way of ending risky backstreet abortions

James Lovelock, Bangkok

James Lovelock, Bangkok

Updated: November 20, 2020 04:01 AM GMT
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Thailand ready to break Buddhist principle by legalizing abortion

The Catholic Church opposes all forms of abortion based on the sacredness of human life. (Image: Pixabay)

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Aborting an unborn child has long been illegal in predominantly Buddhist Thailand, where killing is regarded as a sin, yet each year many women have the procedure performed in secret at clinics by doctors who charge a few thousand baht for the service.

The experience of having their fetuses aborted furtively by dubious operators at small and often badly equipped clinics can be degrading (and medically risky), but many Thai women prefer that to giving birth for one reason or another.

As of early next year, however, abortion in Thailand could finally become legal as the government has just proposed amending the Criminal Code to allow abortions to be performed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

One of two proposed amendments 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, 9 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 spokesperson of 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.

This sentiment mirrors that of the United Nations regarding female emancipation and women’s fundamental right to reproductive health.

“The right of a woman or girl to make autonomous decisions about her own body and reproductive functions is at the very core of her fundamental right to equality and privacy, concerning intimate matters of physical and psychological integrity,” the UN observes.

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.”

Many of the country’s Catholics might too oppose the legalization of abortion on religious grounds. The Catholic Church sees abortion during any stage of a pregnancy as a “moral evil.”

“Since the first century, the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states.

“This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable,” it adds. “Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.”

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