News in Asia: A Brief Overview of Abortion Rights in Asia

Abortion rights and women’s reproductive health have been a prominent topic in the U.S. and European media lately. In the States, there was an epic political showdown in Texas as Democratic legislators fought to prevent the passing of a highly restrictive law that would shut down the majority of clinics that provide abortion and other reproductive health services. While the focus of the media and activists was on Texas, the Ohio legislature passed equally as restrictive with little protest or attention. In Ireland, there are calls to provide wider abortion access beyond saving a mother’s life.

In Asia, abortion rights run the gamut from highly restrictive to completely open and legal. China, Cambodia and Vietnam, for example, have virtually no restrictions on abortion. Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines either ban abortion outright (Philippines) or it is restricted to save the life of the mother (Indonesia). Many countries have laws that fall between the two extremes. South Korea allows abortion to save the life of the mother and protect her physical health, while India and Taiwan allow abortion to protect physical health, mental health and for socio-economic reasons. Nepal, which once had some of the strictest laws regarding abortion and now offers unrestricted access. Below is a video on the changes happening in Nepal since 2002 when abortion was legalized where the number of women dying due to unsafe abortions has been cut in half.

Illegal and Unsafe Abortions

Of course as most abortion rights activists know, restricting or outright outlawing abortion does nothing to seriously reduce the number of abortions performed and can greatly increase the health risks to the mother. Even accounting for countries that offer wide access to abortions, it’s estimated that 40% of the abortions performed in 2008 were unsafe and that number had remained unchanged since 2003. All in all, an estimated 10.8 million abortions performed in 2008 were considered substandard or unsafe. While legality does offer greater and better services, other factors such as poverty and social stigma account for women undergoing unsafe procedures. According to the Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women (ARROW), women living in rural areas are still woefully underserved when it comes to reproductive health:

Abortion being a legal medical service is fine and dandy, but it does little to improve your life if you must travel many kilometers away from your village and sacrifice days when you could be bringing income into your household in order to seek out the procedure. Access to services is of profound importance when we are discussing abortion. Legality is irrelevant without availability.

Given that many abortion clinics are concentrated in urban areas and with the continuing stigma of extra-marital sex and unplanned pregnancy, it’s sad, but not surprising, that women are still forced to undergo unsafe procedures.

In South Korea where abortion is illegal except for saving the life of the mother or physical reasons, abortion still happens at a steady pace. An estimated 340,000 abortions were performed in 2005 and only an estimated 4% were for the legal exceptions. While I firmly believe that personal anecdotes should never be taken over statistical research and data (a position that frustrates many of my pro-life family and acquaintances), the stories I heard while living in South Korea back up the data. A young Korean teacher who taught with an American friend of mine told a group of us girls over coffee that most women knew where to get an abortion. Given that Korean culture frowned on pre-marital sex and pregnancy out of wedlock, she had a number of friends who had abortions. Also, while it is illegal in South Korea to release the sex of a fetus before birth in order to prevent gender-selective abortions, most women received a hint from their healthcare providers as to the gender and gender selective abortions continue.

Gender Selective Abortion and China’s One-Child Policy

In the ongoing abortion debate, many pro-lifers point to gender selective abortions and the China’s one-child policy which is sometimes brutally enforced as prime examples of the evils of abortion. On this, I am in agreement, these practices and laws are wrong, though restricting overall abortion access to prevent gender selective abortion in particular does no good. Reversing sexism and dismantling patriarchal structures is the only way to reverse the trend and that will be a difficult battle as cultural norms and practices are deeply entrenched. What these practices and laws do is reveal the common link between the fight for wider abortion access and reversing policies like the one-child law: a pregnant woman’s lack of bodily autonomy. Women should have the basic right to plan for the number and spacing of children as they see fit. This means women should not be forced to carry a pregnancy to term, nor should she be forced to abort when she fully intends to give birth. China’s policy is a prime example of the latter, though the wealthy are able to bypass the law fairly easily.

A List of Websites for Further Reading


World Abortion Laws Map


By Stephens

Florida girl, would-be world traveler and semi-permanent expat. Her main strategy of life is to throw out the nets and hope something useful comes back, but many times it's just an old shoe. She also really, really hates winter and people who are consistently late.

2 replies on “News in Asia: A Brief Overview of Abortion Rights in Asia”

Thank you for this overview – hugely diverse reason with diverse laws. Great to read that deaths from unsafe abortions have been reduced so much in Nepal. But yes, legality means nothing without accessibility – that’s true everywhere.

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