June 16, 2022
By Umer Zaib Khan
iProBono, a non-profit online network for organizations seeking legal assistance, and the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), a global legal advocacy organization for reproductive rights, on Thursday organized an online roundtable on decriminalizing abortion in Asia.
Abortion in Asia is a very contentious issue, with the legal framework varying from country to country.
In India and Nepal, abortions are regulated and are accessible, while according to Pakistan’s laws, they are partially legal under circumstances where the mother’s life may be at risk. However, in some Asian states such as Laos, abortion is entirely illegal under all circumstances.
While international human rights organizations support and advocate for decriminalization, panelists discussed the need for creating a wholesome regional understanding of what decriminalization entails for different countries, and how to bridge this gap.
The speakers in this webinar consisted of a cohort of regional human rights defenders, lawyers working withe pro bono movement, and pro-choice public health advocates. Panelists included Aparna Chandra, Associate Professor of Law at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore; Sabin Shrestha , Executive Director of the Forum for Women, Law and Development in Nepal; Jihan Jacob, Senior Legal Advisor for Asia at the CRR; Dr. Syeda Nasrin, an advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh; Dasol Lyu, a South Korean human rights defender and Director International Relations at MINBYUN; and Bandana Upreti, Junior Program Officer at iProBono among others.
The panelists concluded that decriminalisation should take into account the local context and existing legal situation while ensuring the inclusion of a few central and basic tenets of what decriminalization of abortion should entail. These tenets included giving women the agency to receive abortions, dispelling the stigma surrounding such procedures, and the removal of legal instruments that punish abortion either directly or indirectly.
Abortion is fully or partially penalized in many countries in Asia. People who receive or perform abortions are subjected to jail time and punishments in many jurisdictions in Asia, which human rights defense groups believe may have devastating effects on pregnant people, including exposing them to life-threatening conditions in case they seek illegal and unregulated abortions.
Even when criminalized only in certain circumstances, criminalisation also has a chilling effect on healthcare providers of pregnant persons. Furthermore, partial criminalisation can lead to confusion and discriminatory implementation against the poor and marginalized, since what is considered ‘necessarry for the wellbeing of the mother’ can also be subject to narrow or restrictive legal interpretations.
Human rights bodies agree that criminalising abortion violates the human rights of the pregnant person, and by 2020 the call to decriminalize abortion has been backed by many UN committees, agencies, and even by the special rapporteurs on health, extrajudicial killings, and violence against women.
“Although some countries are moving to partially decriminalize abortion, there are still harms associated with partial criminalisation that have been diuscussed that must be considered”, said Bhatacharya, Senior Manager for Asia at CRR, adding that the complete removal from the criminal framework and integration into a public health framework is the only acceptable solution according to the recent world health organization (WHO) guidelines.
Panelists agreed that these guidelines provide a definition of decriminalization of abortion, as not applying any indirect criminal offenses such as murder on the act of abortion, not applying any direct penal provisions such as jail time on abortion, and lastly the lack of legal obstructions to abortion. They stated that this recommendation considers human rights groups’ demands and scientific studies which highlight the public health benefits of decriminalization.