A network of civil society organisations have submitted an open letter to the Office of the Council of State, calling for the abolition of the law criminalizing abortion and an extension of the public consultation period for the amendment draft after a technical issue prevented citizens from participating in the survey.
Members of the partner organizations gathering at the Office of the Council of State on Samsen Road with placards saying "Repeal Article 301" and "Safe abortion is human rights" among other messages.
Representatives of Choices Network Thailand, the Tamtang Group, Women for Freedom and Democracy Group and other partner organizations went to the Office of the Council of State on Samsen Road on 9 September to submit their letter, calling for the abolition of Section 301 of the Criminal Code, which makes abortion a criminal offense.
The letter states that representatives of Choices Network Thailand have previously participated in three meetings with the Council of State’s Committee for Amending Sections 301 and 305 of the Criminal Code, during which they proposed that Section 301 be repealed and Section 305 be amended to allow for termination of pregnancy up to a gestational age of at least 24 weeks and that both the women who terminate their pregnancy and medical personnel who provide the services will no longer face charges.
However, the letter also states that after the Committee had completed the draft of the amendments, the Office of the Council of State did not notify members of the civil society network who took part in the meetings. The Office also put the draft up for public consultation on their website without informing the public and closed the consultation after 15 days when only 6 people had participated in the survey.
The Office of the Council of State then extended the public consultation process until 15 September after a demand from the civil society sector, but a technical problem caused the website to be inaccessible. The Office of the Council of State also did not publicize the public consultation.
The civil society network then started their own petition on Change.org calling for the repeal of Section 301. As of 14.30 on 17 September, the petition had 22,058 signatures.
Some participants in the event wore face masks which say "Repeal Article 301. Women who have an abortion aren't criminals."
Sections 301 and 305 of the Criminal Codes affect a large number of people, says the letter, and therefore the public consultation process should be publicized as widely as possible so that as many as possible of those who are affected by this law can take part. It also says that the network believes that the Office of the Council of State’s claim that they have already completed the public consultation process without informing the public and after only 6 people have participated in the survey does not mean that the public has truly contributed to the drafting process.
The network also said that in their draft of the amendments, the Committee did not take into account the proposals and opinions of people who are affected by this law, including women and their families, as well as civil society organizations who work on abortion rights and who provide counselling for women with unwanted pregnancies.
Some participants painted a red circle with the number 301 striked through with a black line on their body to represent their call for the repeal of Article 301, the article in the Criminal Codes which criminalizes abortion.
Choices Network Thailand and 61 other partner organizations therefore make the following demands of the Council of State:
- To seriously consider the civil society sector’s call for the repeal of Section 301, which is supported by 62 organizations who signed the letter and over 20,000 people who signed the Change.org petition.
- To give an explanation for the technical issue that prevented the public from taking part in the online survey and to extend the public consultation period until the issue is resolved.
- To open up the space for contributions from those who are affected or could be affected by the amendments to Sections 301 and 305, such as women who experience unwanted pregnancies or people who have worked with women who choose to terminate their pregnancies.
- To use empirical knowledge and information obtained from academic research in the process of amending the law and to avoid using personal viewpoints and opinions.
As of today (15 September), the Office of the Council of State’s online public consultation system is now accessible. The network is now calling for members of the public to participate in the survey and join them in opposing the draft released by the Council of State, which still does not decriminalize abortion, as it does not completely repeal Section 301 but amends it so that termination of pregnancy after a gestational age of 12 weeks is still punishable with imprisonment, a fine, or both. The survey is closing on 18 September.
Kritaya Archavanitkul, coordinator for Choices Network Thailand, said that Choices Network Thailand and its partner organizations feel that the Committee for Amending Sections 301 and 305 of the Criminal Code has not listened to the public’s opinion thoroughly enough as they have not taken into account the opinions of those who are directly affected. She also said that there is a misunderstanding that civil society is proposing to make abortion free for all, which is not true, as every country that has legalized abortion has set conditions for accessing the service. Kritaya also said that the fact that the Office of the Council of State let a technical issue with their website continue for a long time shows that the Office has no genuine interest in hearing the public’s opinion, so the network is demanding that the Office improve their online system and extend the consultation period.
Kritaya said that by criminalizing abortion, the law is creating fear among both women and medical personnel, and that every sector should see abortion as a basic health service for women and a basic right for a woman to make decisions about her own body.
“The World Health Organization has been making recommendations to various countries for a long time that abortion has to be seen as a health service and as a basic issue in women’s health. It is a basic right of women to take care of their own bodies,” said Kritaya.
“I would like to inform you that there have been research studies done in the past up until now. In Thailand we also have these research studies that confirm that abortion is normal, in quotation marks. It is very normal in human society from ancient times up to today. Where there is pregnancy, there is miscarriage. In the past, no society in this world punished women. Human society uses religious measures and ethical measures and applies them. They take those belief-based measures and apply them in order to punish women, which I think is incredibly unfair and a violation of the human rights rules and regulations that Thailand itself has ratified with the United Nations, so Section 301 must be repealed.”
Kornkanok Kamta from the Women for Freedom and Democracy group also said that public consultation while the online system is inaccessible means that the relevant agencies have no intention of consulting the public and will be making laws without listening to people who are affected by the law, such as women who have had an abortion or who may have to get abortion in the future.
Kornkanok proposed that the Office of the Council of State also conduct an offline survey, as not everyone can access the internet or is proficient in using online systems. She said that the Office of the Council of State should make sure that the public consultation platform is actually accessible, otherwise it would be a violation of the people’s right and would be ground for lawsuit based on Section 157 of the Criminal Code, which states that an official who wrongfully exercises or does not exercise their functions to the injury of any person, or dishonestly exercises or omits to exercise any of their functions, shall be punished with imprisonment of one to ten years or fined two thousand to twenty thousand baht, or both.
“What do you want us to do in getting to express our opinion? We have to hunt for 20,000 signatures on Change.org ourselves before we can bring them to you. In the future, if this platform still doesn’t work, we will go and chase down 10,000 names from the public to amend Section 301 of the criminal law ourselves, because the Council of State’s platform so far has comments from 6 people. Even though we have 20,000 signatures, only 6 of us can log in to access the platform, and they are not even among us because we can’t access it. So we’ll mobilize people to post comments until the website goes down, but you have to make sure we can access it first,” said Kornkanok.
“We cannot accept the draft the Council of State released, and in the end, if this system still refuses to listen to women’s voices, we will go and hunt down names among the public. We will set up a table and collect ID cards and propose our own draft if the Council of State still doesn’t release a draft in a form that we are satisfied with or doesn’t listen to the voice of the people and those who work on this issue, and Section 157 will certainly be coming if we still can’t access the platform.”
During the submission of the letter, representatives of the civil society organizations who support the call for the repeal of Section 301 also shared their experience of working with unwanted pregnancies and abortion-related issues.
Nutchanat Thaenthong from the Four Regions Slum Network (FSRN) said that there are many children in the communities they work with who live with their grandparents and children who lost a parent or whose parents are imprisoned, and that there are a lot of single mothers. She said that these people should have the right to choose whether to keep the children or not, because people are afraid of breaking the law if they get an abortion, but the family has to take responsibility for the children once they are born. She also said that society often places all the blame on women with unwanted pregnancies and forces all the responsibility onto women, without calling out the men who do not share this responsibility, causing problems in the communities. She said that abortion is important and should be normal, and that society should not see this issue through the lens of beliefs, and that if a woman is already using birth control but it fails, or if she is sexually assaulted, she should have the right to choose whether to have the child, because raising a child is a long-term responsibility. Society should also be aware that a woman has the right to make decisions regarding her own body.
“Social workers say that it’s wrong, but after the children are born, stepfathers beat them to death, or they become problem children, and where are those people? Society blames only the mothers, only the families, but never blames society for saying you have to keep the child, but nobody helps raising the child,” said Nutchanat. “Section 301 should also be removed. It should not be used with people in a society of this era. We can speak. We can say that we pity this person or pity that person, but in real life, pity cannot save the lives of those children or save the lives of those women at all.”
Nisarat Jongwisan from Tamtang Group, a group of women who have had abortions who came together to campaign to raise awareness about the issue and provide information about safe abortions, said that as a woman who has had an abortion and works on abortion rights issues, she insists that she would like to take part in the drafting of the law that affects her life and will be making sure this issue reaches as many people as possible so that the law will truly come from the voice of the people.
“Every time I talk about my experience in public, whether on Facebook or in the media, about my abortion and what it was like and what my reasons were, what I get back are questions like, do you not know about condoms? Do you not know about birth control? Do you not know these things at all? I will ask in return that the most effective form of birth control is condoms, right? Who knows about condoms? Who knows best about what size to put on? That’s not the women, right? And in a relationship, we hear very often that the women say that the men tell them that if she doesn’t let them go without a condom, they will break up with her. Who is the one who makes this an important issue in the relationship? Not the woman, right? And they tell us that in the events that lead to an unwanted pregnancy, the woman isn’t one of the factors, but why does the responsibility fall on the woman if an unwanted pregnancy occurs?” Nisarat asked.
“And if that’s not enough, when a woman has an unwanted pregnancy, like myself, when I had my unwanted pregnancy, I can’t talk to anyone. Do I have the courage to talk to my teacher? Do I have the courage to talk to my friends? Do I have the courage to ask the monks or ask the doctors? I daren’t at all, because all my life, I have been told that if you get an abortion, you are committing a sin. You are someone with no responsibility, or whatever criticism that’s been said, and one woman has to brave all of these things to get an abortion. How necessary do you think it is in their lives?
"The circumstances of everyone’s life are different. Each woman who experiences the problem of an unwanted pregnancy has about a million factors that lead her to a decision. How can other people, who are not them, understand their lives? How dare you judge their lives and what they should or should not be? What conceit do you have to judge that her life is right or wrong, to judge the life of a woman you don’t know?”
Em-on Khongsi, who works with the 1663 HIV and unwanted pregnancy hotline, said that the hotline receives around 30,000 calls a year, and about 90% of the callers decide to terminate their pregnancies. Em-on said that women facing an unwanted pregnancy have often already made their choice before they call the hotline, and after the hotline has listened to their problems, they have to support them in accessing a safe abortion. However, as both the women and the medical personnel are worried about breaking the law, many turn to unsafe abortions, causing injury or death. When they are harmed by an unsafe abortion, these women then turn to the hotline, to the Tamtang Group, to Women Help Women, or to other civil society organizations that work on issues of unwanted pregnancies, and sometimes they cannot get to these women in time, so decriminalization of abortion is important.
“If we are still punishing pregnant women like this, I can tell you that if you have them choose to continue the pregnancy, how will they continue the pregnancy when they themselves don’t want to have this child? They have already made up their minds. From my personal experience, I think that it is incredibly important that we repeal Section 301 and we must not punish women who decide to terminate their pregnancies so that they can access safe abortion,” said Em-on.
Mathana Chetmi from Women Help Women said that she hopes the Council of State will answer to the ruling that Section 301 is a violation of the Constitution in order to make Thai law fit with the scope of human rights that is accepted by the world.
“I think our voices today will get to the people who have the power to make a decision to consider being generous and to let the women, who are the owners of their bodies, access safe information, to let people who have the right to their own bodies determine their own lives, to decide their own future about what they should have the right to do for themselves,” said Mathana.