Protecting One’s Uterus from Being Determined — A Legal Perspective on Women’s Abortion Rights in Taiwan

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This article is part of the 39th issue of LEAP — Voices of Youth e-letter. Subscribe now.

On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a ruling that had provided the legal foundation for abortion rights in the U.S. This decision not only evoked shock and polarized reactions from the American public, but also sparked heated discussions about women’s abortion rights all over the world.

In Taiwan, abortion has also been a long-debated topic for which the public holds widely divergent views. On 1 January 1985, the Genetic Health Law, which guarantees women’s right to abortion, came into effect. It allows women to legally obtain an abortion pill or surgically induced abortion within 24 weeks of fetal gestation. However, over the past 40 years, even minor changes to this law have caused widespread public controversy, making abortion a thorny subject for the government to address.

How do Taiwan’s laws and regulations and its society at large approach the issue of abortion? How have these positions changed over the last 40 years?

(Image/Unsplash)

Induced abortion still regarded as “criminal behavior”

For a long time, induced abortion has only been “conditionally” legal in Taiwan. Unless the condition fits with an exception stipulated by the Genetic Health Law, which was introoduced in 1985, a pregnant woman who induces abortion is committing an unlawful act under the Criminal Code. She must face criminal responsibility while those who assist her in the abortion are considered accomplices. Such a standard is still upheld today.

Before the Genetic Health Law was enacted in 1985, all women who voluntarily or on the advice of another person induce abortion by taking medication or other related means are punishable by up to six months in prison, detention, or a fine of up to NT$3,000. Medical personnel who assist women to abort may be sentenced up to two years in prison.

Under this legal framework, women with unwanted pregnancies often have to seek abortions from unlicensed doctors or private clinics, making it more difficult for women to seek proper medical practices, and distorting abortion records with enormous unreported numbers.

Although there have been very few convictions related to “offenses of abortion” in practice, the existence of this criminal charge still exerts great pressure on women who want or have decided to terminate their pregnancy.

In the 1980s, Taiwan’s high population pressure, due to the rapid growth in the past two decades, prompted the government’s introduction of the Genetic Health Law, which allows for legal abortions only under certain circumstances. In cooperation with other population policies, such as family planning and slogans like “one [child] is never too little, two [children] is just enough,” the contentious Genetic Health Law was finally passed in 1985.

Within this context, it is clear that what drove the government to enact this law was not for the purpose of ensuring women’s reproductive autonomy, but rather to control the population and prevent women who wanted to have abortions from being punished under the Criminal Code.

Therefore, for pregnant women and advocates of women’s bodily autonomy, the Genetic Health Law still has new grounds to cover. Many voices are calling for the law to break out of the current mindset of “reproductive control” and advance towards the direction of “reproductive health care.”

The Long and Winding Road of “Genetic Health Law”

As a matter of fact, the name of the Genetic Health Law alone brought about numerous debates. An initial proposal in the 1990s to change its name was even more heavily criticized, as opponents of abortion argued that the name change would “jeopardize family values” and “fail to protect the rights of the fetus.”

Under the pressure of huge opposition, the Genetic Health Law often became too hot to handle for the Legislative Yuan and relevant amendment proposals were often declared stillborn in the drafting stage.

In 2022, the government broke its status quo of silence on the matter of abortion. The Health Promotion Administration of the Ministry of Health and Welfare proposed an amendment to change the name of the “Genetic Health Law” to the “Reproductive Health Care Act” as the original term in Chinese can mean “eugenic,” which has a discriminatory connotation. Additionally, the draft amendment also removes the requirement that married women must have “spousal consent” so that women’s bodily autonomy is more fully protected.

However, the proposal has not yet passed its third reading, and it still contains several sections that women’s groups and related advocacy organizations perceive as “gray areas,” such as the part stipulating that underage girls who want to have an abortion must go through a consultation process, and if they cannot reach a consensus with their legal guardian, the government will arrange for third-party intervention to make a judgment. It remains to be seen whether third-party intervention is the best course of action or if the law should be centered on the interests of the affected party; a more robust system of discernment is needed.

Furthermore, women’s groups such as Taiwan Women’s Link advocate for the Genetic Health Law to be enacted with women’s interests as its core incentive in order for women’s bodily autonomy to be truly respected. The current law mostly emphasizes details such as “sterilization” and “ending reproduction” while visibly ignoring the concerns of women overall.

Abortion is Not Just About “Pro-choice” or “Pro-life”

Besides legislative amendments, the clash of stances between religious organizations and women’s advocacy groups has not diminished with time. Similar to the civil discourse on abortion in Western societies, Taiwanese society is divided between the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps.

On one hand, those who are pro-life argue that the fetus should not be denied the right to be born nor should the woman value her choice over the life of the fetus; on the other hand, those who are pro-choice believe a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy based on her experiences and conditions should be validated, especially as whether an embryo is really a life is unclear while the predicaments women face due to unplanned pregnancies cannot be more real.

Nevertheless, the seemingly intractable dispute surrounding abortion is not without progress. Under the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the government hopes to safeguard women’s reproductive autonomy, recognizing that the decision to terminate a pregnancy should not be restricted by spouses, parents, partners, or government agencies. In 2018, a referendum submitted by the non-governmental organization Shofar to try to shorten the time allowed for legal abortions to no later than 8 weeks of pregnancy was rejected by the Ministry of Health and Welfare at the proposal stage.

While the dialogue on abortion in Taiwan has not always been incredibly prominent, it may once again become the focus of public interest in the not-so-distant future as related conversations are being conducted throughout the world. It will be interesting to see where the civil exchanges in Taiwan regarding abortion will go, and whether the issue of abortion can be freed from stigma and discrimination and significant progress made beyond its legislation.

Also in This Issue:

Morality, Tradition, Religion: The Persistent Stigmatization of Abortion

The social aspect of abortion superimposes strong stigma and moral limits on women seeking to terminate pregnancy.

Author : Evelyn Yang

Freelance writer / Graduate student in Journalism

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LEAP − Voices of Youth

LEAP − Voices of Youth

LEAP: Voices of Youth is a quality platform for English readers to learn about gender issues in Taiwan