Thailand’s Abortion Debate

How have Thailand’s authorities responded to the discovery of thousands of fetuses at a Bangkok temple?

Thailand is still recovering from the shock caused by the appalling recent discovery of more than 2000 illegally aborted fetuses at the Wat Phai Ngern temple in Bangkok.

The discovery of even one dead fetus usually generates strong condemnation in the country, especially from conservative circles. But what's the reaction when thousands of dead fetuses are found in a Buddhist temple?

The first instinct of authorities was to investigate the temple’s caretakers. But this isn't only a police matter alone—according to one analyst, the dead fetus horror is merely the ‘tip of Thailand's illegal abortion iceberg.’ It’s estimated that around 150,000 to 200,000 women every year across the country are going to private clinics for illegal abortions.

Abortion is illegal in Thailand except under certain conditions such as if a woman is raped, if the pregnancy negatively affects her health, or if the fetus is abnormal. Abortion is seldom discussed in the media, but the sight of the bagged fetuses has activated lively public debates on whether it’s time to update the country’s abortion laws.

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Asked about his stand on the issue, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said there's no need for new legislative measures since abortion laws are already adequate. What Vejjajiva suggests instead is further re-education of the country’s youth so that proper social values will be instilled in Thais from a young age. But this position is contrary to current public opinion as reflected in the polls, which favours the legalization of abortion now that more people are linking abortion with individual rights.

If the prime minister is unwilling to rethink his stand on abortion, one of his fellow party members in parliament has already proposed the legalization of abortion. But MP Rayong Sathit Pitutecha 's objective isn’t merely to give women access to proper health services, but also to reduce the country’s ‘low quality’ population. This point—a public official favouring abortion to get rid of ‘disagreeable’ members of society—has created doubt amongst human rights advocates about the motivation behind this push.

Thailand has taken some bold and effective measures in the past to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the country. Maybe the dead fetus scandal will also embolden authorities to review the country’s abortion policy. Or if they are hesitant to change abortion laws, at least they can do something to substantially improve the delivery of reproductive health services to prevent future such incidents.