Women’s Bodies, Women’s Choice? Reproductive Rights in Southeast Asia


Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are one of the cornerstones of gender equality. Access to abortion is one important part of SRHR and the way women’s bodies are regulated reflects on how a society values women and gender equality. Both, Cambodia and Thailand have legalized abortion until the 12th week. Yet, feminists in the two neighbouring countries see room for improvement and share recommendations. Bunn Rachana, Director of Klahaan organization and Anna Lawattanatrakul, assistant editor and reporter for Prachatai English share their insights on the abortion debates.

Decriminalize Abortion
Teaser Image Caption
Decriminalize abortion campaign signs seen at the pride march on 7 November 2020

Current abortion law in Cambodia

Abortion is legal in Cambodia – the Royal Government of Cambodia adopted the law back in 1997, but it was only implemented since 2002.

Abortion is legal only within the first trimester of pregnancy.

After this 12-week period has passed, abortion is only permissible only under the following three circumstances:

  • (a) if there is a probability of abnormality during the pregnancy or if the pregnancy poses a danger to the mother’s life;
  •  (b) if the baby contracts an incurable disease”; or
  •  (c) if the pregnancy is caused by rape.

Only in such circumstances, can abortion be allowed, which has to be approved by a group of “2 or 3 medical personnel.


What is a feminist critique of this law?

Bunn Rachana: “These provisions undermine the well-established notion of “women's bodies, women's choice!”. Why should an adult pregnant woman need approval of two or three unfamiliar people [medical personnel] should she need an abortion? Young girls and boys of the age 15 years old are recognized under the Cambodian Criminal Code as having the legal rights to enter into sexual consent and are able to make decisions independently about their own bodies. The central concern is that restricting or banning abortion based on the circumstances or stage of the pregnancy takes away the control of the concerned woman over her own body and strips her of access to safe medical procedures and experienced medical practitioners. It undermines women’s freedom of choice and makes them very vulnerable. The only option might be to seek unsafe abortion services from unregulated clinics with untrained personnel, which is a risk to life and health.”

Despite abortion being legal, why is there high estimated prevalence of unsafe abortion? What systemic socio-cultural factors, impede women’s autonomy and control over safe abortion?

Bunn Rachana: “Available information demonstrates that women are hesitant to access abortion services and even when they do, they often face strong stigmatization in the society.[1]

Over 95 percent of Cambodians identify as Theravada Buddhist. The Cambodians who follow Theravada Buddhist are encouraged to live life according to the five precepts of Buddhism, one of which is to refrain from harming living beings and practicing loving-kindness. According to this teaching, performing abortion leads to retributions. It is said to shorten the life of the follower as well as increases proneness to disease, and exposure to constant grief and fear. Many medical practitioners thus choose to opt out of providing abortion services to avoid the moral conflict between being a good Buddhist and being a good medical practitioner.

Cambodia is a conservative society. There has been an active move to suppress women’s sexual autonomy into an idealized view of a virginal, subservient women. This has caused fear and anxiety among women especially young, and/or unmarried women, preventing them from speaking up, or to openly seek information or abortion service in the hospital, or clinic in fear of being known and judged as improper women. This has pushed many women to seek abortions done by unlicensed practitioners. According to the National Maternal and Child Health Center, approximately 40% of all abortions in the past five years were performed by unlicensed practitioners.[2]

What are recommendations to improve the access to reproductive health?

Bunn Rachana, feminist, director and co-founder of Klahaan

Bunn Rachana: “As a feminist, I believe that the personal is political and vice versa; I also believe in the power of using our voice collectively to make positive changes in our society, specially to create an enabling environment and society in which women of all social backgrounds can fully enjoy their human rights particularly sexual and reproductive health rights. Thus, the message is loud and clear; these is our bodies and thus this is our choices. #OurBodiesOurChoices whether it is about abortion or other issues.

The government should immediately stop interfering in our sex-life and reproductive system, take immediate and necessary actions to amending this and other conservative laws, work more proactively on ending street harassment and sexual and gender based violence, rather than focusing on what we are wearing, or doing with our bodies.

First and foremost, the government should invest in human resource and medical skills development as well as improving the infrastructure and facilities to ensure that legal abortion services are accessible, affordable, safe and within reach from remote areas.

Further, the government should invest in raising public awareness about the right to abortion, and sexual and reproductive health rights, as well as integrating the subject of comprehensive sex education into the school curriculum, starting from secondary to the higher education program. When it comes to sex education, Cambodian youth should have access to quality and reliable information such as 1) the prevention approach including legal age of consent and their sexual rights, sexual consent, and contraception; and 2) the mitigation approach which includes treatment of sexual transmitted disease, safe abortion services and mechanism to seek redress when one is being sexually abused.”

The new abortion law in Thailand: Legalized , still criminalized

Anna Lawattanatrakul

Abortion rights activists and civil society organizations gathered in front of the parliament on 25 January 2021

Current abortion law in Thailand

Until February 2021 abortion was illegal except under limited circumstances.

The law allowed termination of a pregnancy by physicians only

  1. when abortion was necessary due to the health of the pregnant woman,
  2. or if the pregnancy was the result of rape.

There are two provisions regarding abortion under the country’s criminal code. With the amended law Section 301 abortion until the 12th week is legal, but remains a crime when done after the first trimester and carries a prison sentence of up to 6 months or a fine of up to 10,000 baht, or both.

The bill also amended Section 305, which allowed abortion in case of rape. Now abortion is allowed if performed by a medical professional under the following circumstances:

  1. Abortion is necessary for the sake of the woman’s mental or physical health;
  2. The foetus is at risk of severe physical or mental disability once born;
  3. The woman informs the medical professional that she is pregnant as a result of sexual assault;
  4. The woman is less than 12 weeks pregnant and insist on having an abortion; and
  5. The woman is more than 12 weeks but less than 20 weeks pregnant and insist on having an abortion after going through an examination and counselling process according to the Prevention and Solution of the Adolescent Pregnancy Problem Act.

When the Senate passed the new abortion bill on January 25, 2021, a network of reproductive rights activists and civil society organizations gathered in front of the parliament to denounce the bill as it does not decriminalize abortion entirely

Debates on access to abortion

In February 2020, the Constitutional Court ruled that Section 301 of the criminal code violates Sections 27 and 28 of the current Constitution and must be amended. Section 27 states that “all persons are equal before the law,” and that “men and women shall enjoy equal rights,” as well as prohibiting discrimination based on differences, while Section 28 states that “a person shall enjoy the right and liberty in his or her life and person.”

Later, the Palang Pracharat (the ruling party)’s MP Santi Kiranand, Chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on the abortion bill, said during the parliamentary session that the Committee used the Cabinet’s proposal as the basis for the bill, and that the Committee decided to allow abortions up to the 12th week in order to keep the balance between a woman’s right to her own body and the right of the foetus.

Kritaya Achavanitkul, coordinator of the Choices Network and a member of the Ad Hoc Committee, said during the parliamentary session that Section 301 should be repealed, as abortion is a “victimless crime” and is something that a woman does to her own body, and that, by specifically punishing women for getting an abortion, the law contributes to the stigmatization. She said that many countries no longer criminalise abortion, and that abortion should be seen as part of healthcare, in accordance with the World Health Organization’s principles.

The Ad Hoc Committee previously amended the bill so that the prison term for getting an abortion after the 12th week was reduced to 3 months. However, parliament voted to keep the 6-month prison term stated in the draft proposed by the Cabinet.

Kritaya said in an interview that it is crucial that the counselling process is not stalled or delayed, as this is comparable to delaying justice and access to healthcare is a fundamental right. Abortion becomes riskier and more expensive the longer the pregnancy progresses, and the World Health Organization states that abortions can be safely performed up to the 24th week of pregnancy. Delaying the process and preventing a person from accessing safe abortion services is therefore a violation of the person’s rights.

“If the person should have rights, but you […] make up a lot of steps, that would delay the process. The process also often is not based on what the woman needs, but on the beliefs and mindset of those who provide the services. What we have seen in the past is the attempt to convince women not to get an abortion,” Kritaya said.           

Kritaya Achavanitkul, coordinator of the Choices Network and a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Abortion Bill

Kritaya has proposed to the Committee that the process should involve optional counselling. Choices Network has worked with the Ministry of Public Health for almost 10 years to create an optional counselling service in the Ministry’s One Stop Crisis Centre (OSCC), which supports women and children who are victims of domestic violence or human trafficking and women with unwanted pregnancies, so both the OSCC and the Ministry’s Health Administration Division understands the process. Kritaya said that the Committee agreed with her.

Not all public hospitals provide abortion services, which means that patients have to be referred to another healthcare provider, increasing expenses and unnecessarily delaying their access to services.

More inclusive perspective and information needed

The abortion rights activist group Tamtang Group issued a statement after the bill was passed by the Senate saying that state authorities ignore their demands for abortion to be completely decriminalized, despite research that support their demands, as well as a petition backed by at least 37,000 people.

In a statement the Tamtang Group and the Feminist for Freedom and Democracy Group argue that the new abortion law, “violates human rights principles by continuing to punish people who get an abortion after the 12th week of pregnancy, even though in the past, and after the law comes into effect, there has as yet been no measures to communicate to the public so that the society has information and a correct understanding of safe abortion, or any clear measure about how the law will be enforced so that all state public health providers will provide safe abortion services or refer those who come to receive services according to the new law, which will guarantee that those who want to terminate a pregnancy will be able to receive comprehensive information and to access services within the time frame stated by the new law.”

As a group of people who have had an abortion and an organization that has been working with people with unwanted pregnancies, they had requested that the relevant government agencies allow them to participate in drafting the new legislation, but the request was not granted.

The group says that the bill did not follow international human rights principles, according to which the right to termination is solely the right of the person who is pregnant and should not be challenged by “rights of unborn life” as the right to life begins with birth.

According to the group, the law lacks respect for a person’s reproductive rights, the right to health services, and the right to live free from discrimination and degrading and inhumane treatment.

Abortion Protest
Representatives from the Tamtang Group, Choices Network Thailand, the Four Regions Slum Network, and other civil society partner organisations gathered in front of the parliament compound to call for the repeal of Section 301 on 23 December 2020

There are also demands for a more inclusive reproductive rights movement, which has previously framed abortion rights as women’s rights. Activist Siri Ninlapruek explained that gender has become more diverse, and there are transgender and intersex people who can get pregnant and can be protected if the law is changed. Siri said that, for many of these cases, as with all people who can be pregnant, pregnancy could be unplanned or a result of sexual assault.

“There is the LGBT group who is now in the same space with other sexes, so it’s not all a safe space, and it’s not always the case that they want [children],” Siri says.

The Tamtang Group demands in their statement that healthcare providers must always be aware that those who come to receive services may identify as women or as any other gender, and that they must be sensitive and respectful of their human dignity.

Siri adds that, as often pregnancies are only noticed at the 12th week, abortion should be allowed up to the 24th week of pregnancy. Victims of sexual assault may also have a hard time seeking help, which may delay access to necessary services.

Since Section 301 is a criminal law and carries severe penalty, people might be afraid to speak up or seek the medical help they need.

“I do not see that morality, or norms, or traditions aren’t good things, but they have to be appropriate. You can’t use all of them, every single word, to create inequality in society, to create injustice in society, or to create oppression in society. You’re claiming good ethics, good morals, but you are still oppressing people and cause them injury, death, or possibly even” Siri adds.

During the gathering at the parliament, which was organised by the Tamtang Group, the Feminist for Freedom and Democracy Group, and the Safe Abortion Action Fund (SAAF), the group placed funeral wreaths in front of the entrance to the parliament compound in a symbolic act of protest against the law.

They also performed a Thai version of the Chilean feminist anthem A Rapist in Your Path,” with the lyrics rewritten to call for abortion rights and a person’s right to their own body.


Bunn Rachana, Director of Klahaan organization was interviewed by hbs Cambodia

Anna Lawattanatrakul, assistant editor and reporter for Prachatai English focusing on gender-based violence and discrimination. This article was updated by hbs Southeast Asia and republished with permission from Prachatai English.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.


[1] Klahaan, Policy Snapshot: Cambodian Sexual and reproductive health rights, 2020