BANGKOK — In what abortion rights advocates called a partial victory, Thailand’s Parliament has voted to make the procedure legal in the first trimester, while keeping penalties in place for women who undergo it later in their pregnancies.
Lawmakers in the Senate voted 166 to 7 on Monday to amend a law that had imposed prison terms of up to three years for anyone having an abortion, and up to five years for those who perform one. The new version allows any woman to end a pregnancy in the first 12 weeks.
Advocates say the measure is a good start but 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 potential fines and up to six months in prison.
The Medical Council says pregnancies can be terminated by a qualified professional after 12 weeks if they are the result of a sexual assault or pose a threat to the mother’s physical or emotional health. Abortion is also permitted if the fetus is known to have abnormalities.
Many women in Thailand found ways to get abortions under the previous restrictions, but the country still has a high teenage pregnancy rate. About 1.5 million babies were born to teenage mothers in Thailand between 2000 and 2014, according to government figures analyzed by the United Nations Population Fund, and nearly 14 percent of all pregnancies in 2016 were among adolescents.
Supecha Baotip, an activist with Tamtang, an abortion advocacy group in Thailand, said she feared that underground abortions would continue. “I don’t want women with pregnancies older than 12 weeks worried that they cannot undergo the procedure and thus not seek it out legally,” she said.
Ms. Supecha said she would watch closely to see whether the Health Ministry extends early abortion services and pressures doctors to comply with the new rule.
“Any hospital can provide this service, but because of the doctors’ attitude, they don’t,” she added.
Last February, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that the country’s previous law on abortion was unconstitutional, and it gave the government 360 days to change it.
Two revisions were proposed, one by the cabinet and another by the opposition Move Forward Party. The House of Representatives later rejected the Move Forward version, which would have allowed abortions until 24 weeks.
Heather Barr, the interim co-director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, wrote this week that Thailand’s new abortion law was a step forward but that the late-term restrictions still posed 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 Southeast Asia’s abortion laws were still a patchwork, ranging from complete bans to full decriminalization. But she said she saw progress both in Thailand and in South Korea, where a court ruled two years ago that an anti-abortion law was unconstitutional.
“We hope that these court cases will help other governments in the region, and beyond, to realize that restrictions on choice violate international human rights law, and often domestic law as well, and must be reformed,” Ms. Barr said.
Muktita Suhartono reported from Bangkok, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.