The National – Thursday, December 2, 2010
In a quiet corner of a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, an impromptu shrine has been created for the thousands of foetuses discovered recently. Police were alerted by a terrible smell after the temple’s furnace broke down. RACHEL HARVEY reports
CARTONS of milk and children’s toys have been placed on the ground in front of an unimposing grey building divided up into small compartments marked by padlocked doors.
This is the temple morgue, where bodies are stored before being cremated. But, the shrine is unusual.
The offerings have been left to ease the transition of restless souls from this life to the next – the souls of 2,002 aborted foetuses that were recently discovered behind the locked doors.
The remains are widely believed to have come from illegal clinics.
Abortions are only permitted in Thailand in cases of rape, incest or where the mother’s life is in danger.
However, official statistics suggest around 300,000 abortions are carried out each year, the vast majority in back-street clinics.
The gruesome discovery of so many foetuses in the grounds of a temple has prompted debate about an issue usually considered taboo.
Prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has resisted demands for new legislation, saying the problem lies in society’s values.
Thailand is, however, also a society full of contradictions. Parts of central Bangkok reveal the seedier side of life.
Open-air bars line the streets with names that leave little to the imagination – “Red lips”, “Pretty girls”, “Spanky’s”.
The bar stools are occupied by women waiting to entertain male customers.
Bangkok has a reputation for being the city where anything goes. Sex is for sale and all tastes are catered for.
Religion is often cited as the driving force of conservatism in this predominantly Buddhist nation. But, there is one leader of the faith who thinks it may be time for a new approach.
In a room filled with his books and DVDs, a bespectacled Phramaha Vudhijaya Vajiramedhi sat in a chair while followers respectfully positioned themselves at a lower level on the floor.
Vajiramedhi is a charismatic, highly popular, media-savvy 37-year-old monk. When he speaks, people tend to listen.
Buddhists are fundamentally opposed to any kind of killing, including abortion. But Vajiramedhi believes apportioning blame is not helpful.
“We need to adjust the old-fashioned way of teaching morality,” he said.
“We cannot just keep saying that abortion is a sin, abortion is bad karma.
“We need to understand that, when a woman decides to have an abortion, it has something to do with lack of sex education or she might have problems at home.
“Monks must do more than telling people it is a sin. We have to find solutions too,” Vajiramedhi said.
That sentiment is shared by Maytinee Bhongsvej from the Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women. However, she wants more practical, as well as spiritual, help to be made available.
Maytinee said: “If a woman decides to abide by the law and keep her baby, knowing that she is not really ready for that, once she delivers the baby, who extends their hand to help? No one.
“If you do not want legal abortion, you have to have a better system to look after the women who go through with the pregnancy.”
There is clearly much soul-searching still to be done.
But, there is, perhaps, one positive outcome from the terrible discovery of the temple foetuses.
Thailand is at last openly debating an issue previously left unspoken. – BBC