Abortion is a global health issue, impacting individuals and families regardless of ethnicity, income, social status or nationality. Yet there is no worldwide legal standard for the practice of terminating a pregnancy. Lawmakers and governments hold sway over access to abortion, or its abolition.
In the United States, the Supreme Court’s 24 June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the court’s 1973 ruling ensuring abortion rights, toppled nearly 50 years of U.S. legal precedent by granting power to individual states to make their own abortion laws. The change dismantled the national protection of abortion as a choice in cases of medical emergencies or unwanted pregnancies.
The court’s ruling was shocking to some in the moment of announcement, but also unsurprising to those who have watched the court’s rightward shift, which was cemented with the addition of three conservative justices appointed by former President Donald Trump and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The nine Supreme Court justices hold lifetime appointments and Trump was able to add Neil Gorsuch (2017), Brett Kavanaugh (2018) and Amy Coney Barrett (2020) following the deaths of Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the retirement of Anthony Kennedy. The new lineup gave the court’s conservative wing enough votes to discard the abortion precedent.
The decision exemplifies how issues of morality and politics have overtaken pure medical science and placed abortion at the centre of a furious ethical dispute that has fueled heated debate and, at times, extreme violence in the U.S. and beyond. Personal standards of morality, often based on religious tenets, drive the public battle over the issue.
Subsequently, the responsibility for establishing medical guidelines for abortion procedures – the number of elapsed weeks or the circumstances leading to the pregnancy of a person seeking termination – has been taken up by lawmakers and governments. The ensuing statutes regulating abortion vary greatly by country, including those in Southeast Asia.
The World Health Organization (WHO) released an updated version of its Abortion Care Guideline in March. In an executive summary, the authors noted “6 out of 10 unintended pregnancies and 3 out of 10 of all pregnancies ending in induced abortion,” but 45% of abortions are considered “unsafe.” Of those categorised as unsafe, 97% are in developing countries “among groups in vulnerable and marginalized situations.” Between 4.7% and 13.2% of annual maternal deaths, 13,865 to 38,940 deaths, are the result of unsafe abortions.
“Legal restrictions and other barriers mean many women find it difficult or impossible to access quality abortion care and they may induce abortion themselves using unsafe methods or seek abortion from unskilled providers,” the WHO stated. “The legal status of abortion makes no difference to a woman’s need for an abortion, but it dramatically affects her access to safe abortion.”
Southeast Asia Globe compiled a list of current abortion laws and policies in each of the region’s nations using information from sources including the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), a global legal and human rights organisation, and the Global Abortion Policies Database (GAPD) operated by the WHO’s Human Reproduction Programme.
Abortion is illegal in Brunei and punishable by public flogging under Shariah law introduced by the government in 2014, when Brunei became the first Southeast Asian country to introduce a national Sharia penal code through a three-phase implementation process finalised in April 2019.
Jail sentences of up to 10 years also can be handed down for terminating pregnancies. There are certain exceptions made for abortions performed “in good faith to save the life of the woman,” according to a summary posted by pro-choice NGO Women on Waves.
Abortions are legally available in Cambodia, although in relevant cases parental notification and authorisation is required, CRR reported.
In some countries, there is ‘gestational limit’ for abortions, meaning the time frame within a pregnancy during which an abortion may be conducted. The CRR legal database calculates gestational limits “from the first day of the last menstrual period, which is considered to occur two weeks prior to conception. Where laws specify that gestational age limits are calculated from the date of conception, these limits have been extended by two weeks.”
The gestational limit in Cambodia is 14 weeks, according to CRR.
Indonesian law allows abortion in medical emergencies, as well as in cases of severe foetal anomaly.
The law was expanded in 2009 to legalise abortion in cases of rape, but only within six weeks of gestation. The abortion must be approved by experts, have the consent of the pregnant woman or her husband or family and be performed by health workers, according to the Women on Waves Indonesia report.
Indonesian abortion law is based on a national health law passed in 1992, which is in itself modelled on the colonial Dutch criminal code of 1918. The penalty for illegal abortions is up to four years in jail, Amnesty International reported
A teenage girl was sentenced to six months in jail in 2018 for terminating a pregnancy after being raped by her brother. She was later cleared and released.
Abortion is “prohibited altogether” in Laos, according to CRR.
The GAPD report on Laos noted rape is considered a legal ground for abortion with a gestational limit of 28 weeks.
Legal penalties for performing abortions include imprisonment from two to five years, while a person performing their own abortion or commissioning an abortion can face three months to three years in prison, Women on Waves reported.
Abortion is technically legal in Malaysia, though there are immense restrictions attached. Section 312 of the 2018 Malaysian Penal Code states termination is only allowed when a registered medical practitioner deems the pregnancy is a risk to the woman’s life or may cause physical or mental health injury. Public health professionals can deem abortions inappropriate according to their personal or religious views.
In a public hospital setting, standard operating procedures requires two doctors, including a specialist, to be present during pre-abortion assessments.
The legal permissions for abortion due to possible health risks have a gestational limit of 22 weeks, according to Malaysia’s GAPD report.
Abortion is allowed only “to save the woman’s life,” CRR reported.
There are no legal grounds or exemptions for abortions and penalties can be brought against a pregnant person, abortion providers and assistants, according to the GAPD Myanmar report.
Abortion is prohibited in the Philippines. Article 12, Section 12 of the Philippines Constitution cites the state’s recognition of “the sanctity of family life and shall protect and strengthen the family as a basic autonomous social institution.”
Legal penalties listed in the country’s Revised Penal Code of 1930 include potential prison sentences and fines for pregnant women, family members, physicians, pharmacists and midwives.
The government informed the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2019 that abortion may be legally justified “to protect the life and health” of a pregnant person, according to CRR’s Jihan Jacob.
In a March opinion article for Filpino news outlet Rappler, Jacob said an online petition calling for repeal of the code’s abortion provisions has received almost 30,000 signatures, while advocates have “launched a draft bill repealing the penal provisions and providing for a positive legal framework to ensure abortion access.”
Singapore was one of the first countries in Asia to legalise abortion in 1969. Abortion is available to all Singapore citizens and those with ‘permanent resident’ status and student or work visas. ‘Foreigners’ who do not meet those criteria are eligible for abortions if they have resided in Singapore for more than four months or are considered a permanent resident, are married to a citizen or hold a work permit pass.
There is no minimum age requirement and minors under the age of 16 do not need parental consent. Abortion is prohibited after 24 weeks unless the mother’s life is in danger, according to Singapore-based women’s helpline AWARE.
Abortions are legally available in Thailand and the gestational limit is 12 weeks, CRR reported.
Out of Thailand’s 1.34 million annual pregnancies between 2015 and 2019, 51% were unintended and 64% of the unintended pregnancies ended in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a U.S.-based research and policy organisation supporting sexual and reproductive health rights
Abortion is legally allowed only to save a pregnant person’s life in Timor-Leste, according to CRR, which noted parental notification and authorisation is required in relevant cases.
Legal grounds for abortion include foetal impairment and risks to mental and physical health. Those who can face penalties for breaking the law include the pregnant person, the abortion provider and those assisting, according to GAPD’s Timor-Leste report.
There were 54,900 pregnancies annually between 2015 and 2019 in Timor-Leste, including 27% that were unintended. Of the unintended pregnances, 68% were terminated by abortion, the Guttmacher Institute reported.
Abortions are legally available in Vietnam, CRR reported.
Vietnam’s Law on the Protection of Public Health, Chapter VII, Article 44, states medical institutions and individuals may not perform abortions without permission from the Ministry of Public Health, according to an unofficial translation on CRR’s website.
The penal code outlaws illegal abortions, with offenders facing prison terms of one to five years and non-custodial sentences up to three years. Cases involving loss of life or serious health damage to the patient face prison sentences from three to 15 years along with possible fines and bans from certain positions and jobs.
Additional reporting by Amanda Oon.