The recent move to permit abortions for women who are 12–20 weeks pregnant puts the pendulum swinging in the right direction for rights groups in Thailand. Yet, the policy is far from providing sufficient safe and legal abortion services to those who need them.
The amendment to Section 305(5) of the Criminal Code that regulated the elective termination of pregnancy will come into effect at the end of this month after changes were codified and gazetted on Sept 26. The country now allows women 12–20 weeks pregnant to seek medical consultation at state hospitals before being allowed to receive legal abortion services.
This was almost unthinkable a few years back when Thai law was strict on abortion, a crime punishable by fines and jail terms for pregnant women who had aborttions and those who performed the procedure.
Previously, only Section 305 of the Criminal Code exempted licensed doctors from prosecution for performing abortions for legitimate medical reasons. For example, pregnancies that pose physical or mental health threats to the mother, those resulting from the sexual assault of a minor, or those with foetuses showing abnormalities could be aborted.
Last year, the Public Health Ministry began amending the Criminal Code due to pressure from pro-choice groups who wanted the government to permit abortions for women up to 12 weeks pregnant and reduce abortion-related penalties.
This year, the ministry revised Section 305(5) section to open the door of abortion access to women who were 12–20 weeks pregnant, with the need for prior consultation and approval.
While the policy signals a favourable tide for women's rights, government resources and manpower do not.
According to National Human Rights Commission figures for the first half of this year, most pregnant women who intended to terminate their pregnancy still lacked the information needed to obtain safe and legal abortion services.
As of August, Thailand had 110 healthcare units capable of providing abortion services, and most of them were only familiar with performing abortions on women less than 12 weeks pregnant.
Yet, the problem goes beyond shortcomings of resources. There are still complaints of hospitals being reluctant to provide medical consultation. They also lack the capability to refer cases.
The problem comes from the stigma surrounding the practice of abortion. Last week, Dr Ekachai Piensriwatchara, deputy director-general of the Department of Public Health, reportedly admitted that even state officials refuse to work in this area.
Such a dilemma is a big challenge for society. Abortion is a highly complicated and sensitive issue, and the problem is larger than the moral question. According to the Department of Public Health, about 300,000 women have an abortion annually, with only 15,000 of them using legal abortion services. There have been reports of women suffering from medical complications stemming from illegal services.
The Ministry of Public Health and related associations, such as the Medical Council of Thailand, must work harder to change the attitude of medical professionals to address abortion as a social problem that needs concerted efforts to solve. Needless to say, no woman wants to have an unsafe abortion. And while the government must do everything it can to reduce unwanted pregnancies, it must provide safe and legal services for women who really need a termination.