By Robert Horn / Bangkok Tuesday Nov 23 2010

Time Magazine

Following the discovery of more than 2,000 aborted fetuses at a temple crematorium in Bangkok last week, Thai police have promised a crackdown on clinics performing illegal abortions, already arresting one abortion practitioner and investigating several clinics. The nascent crackdown immediately sparked criticism from reproductive-rights activists, who say it will force poor women into even more illicit and unsafe conditions if they choose to end a pregnancy in Thailand, where most abortions are illegal.

Police, who were called to the Phai Ngern Chotanaram Buddhist temple in Bangkok last Tuesday after neighbors complained of a foul odor, initially discovered 348 fetus remains wrapped in small plastic bags. After arresting an undertaker and a health-clinic worker, over 1,500 more fetuses were found on Thursday. According to the English-language Bangkok Post, the undertaker told police the temple’s crematorium had broken down a month ago, and so the fetuses had not been burned. The gruesome discovery shocked the temple’s neighbors and government officials. Police pledged to shut down clinics providing abortions illegally and on Thursday arrested a woman whom they accused of performing abortions and delivering the fetuses to the temple for cremation. She said she had transported the fetuses from several clinics, and claimed that models and actresses were among her clients. (See pictures of Bangkok, the capital of gridlock.)

Though abortion is still illegal in Thailand, there are exceptions in cases of rape, incest, a threat to the mother’s physical or psychological health or if the mother is underage. Nonetheless, according to Professor Kamheang Chaturachinda, president of the Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights Foundation of Thailand, some estimates say 300,000 to 400,000 abortions are performed each year in the nation of 67 million people, and because most are performed in illicit circumstances, they are unsafe, he says.

“The crackdown will not deter women who need abortion. It will, however, drive the price of abortion up, and cause more complications and deaths to women in the hands of these quacks,” Kamheang says. “Definitely, the poor and marginalized women will suffer greatly. And the Thai national health program will also pay more to care for these suffering women from complications arising from unsafe abortion.” Montri Pekanan, head of the Planned Parenthood Association of Thailand, also says the procedure’s legal status is endangering women. “We get so many women at our clinic who are suffering from complications from illegal abortions,” he says. “The personnel at those clinics are not qualified or licensed.” (See the most common hospital mishaps.)

Last week’s events have reopened the conversation about abortion’s legal status in Thailand. In a 2004 book titled Abortion, Sin and the State in Thailand, Andrea Whittaker wrote that abortion in Thailand “challenges the Kingdom’s most cherished images and stereotypes about itself, especially those that present Thailand as a Buddhist state … where women enjoy a high status and equality.” As a result, she says, Thai women’s advocacy groups have struggled to convince authorities of the health implications of the current policy. Both Montri and Kamheang say Thai women should have the right to choose and abortion should be legal. “There is public support for it, but it never passes in parliament,” Montri says. “Lawmakers don’t want to be called baby killers.” On Friday, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Thailand’s abortion laws were flexible enough as they are now and that he would not change them.

Reproductive-rights advocates say the police crackdown will do little to solve the problem, as there are too many clinics performing the service in the capital, and police will never be able to identify them all. Both Montri and Kamheang say a better path forward to reduce the number of women seeking illegal abortions would be to increase sex-education and pregnancy-prevention campaigns.