In mid-November the neighbours of the Phai Ngern Chotanaram Buddhist temple in Bangkok complained that a foul odour was coming from the temple grounds. The police investigated and found the remains of 2,002 aborted foetuses heaped up in a mortuary reeking of decay and disinfectant. The two attendants were arrested.

It turned out that some of Bangkok’s numerous abortion mills had been sending their remains to the temple so that they could be cremated secretly along with adult corpses. But about a year ago the crematorium broke down. Plastic bags with the foetuses kept arriving from clinics so the inept undertakers packed them ever more tightly into the foetid vaults.

The monks knew little about what was going on in the mortuary because it was the business of the temple employees. “The temple administration had no knowledge of the foetuses beforehand,” a monk spokesman told the media. “I can assure you that monks here in the temple were never aware of this and it was not the temple’s intention or aim for things to happen like this.”

But all of Thailand was horrified. Abortion, except in cases of rape and incest and when the mother’s health is at risk, is illegal and for devout Buddhists it is a terrible crime. “Buddhism believes in rebirth and teaches that individual human life begins at conception,” says Buddhism expert Damien McKeown. “The new being, bearing the karmic identity of a recently deceased individual, is therefore as entitled to the same moral respect as an adult human being.”

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the government’s immediate response was not to restudy the wisdom of its restrictions on abortion, but to announce a crackdown on illegal clinics. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva deplored the incident but declared that the current legislation was “flexible enough”.

Nonetheless, illegal abortion is a huge problem in Thailand, a country of 67 million people. No one knows how many happen every year. There about 80,000 legal abortions, and possibly as many as 300,000 illegal ones. Dozens of clinics exist in Bangkok where unmarried pregnant teenagers and married women who want to limit the size of their family can get fixed up.

The media, both in Bangkok and in the West, focused on Thai campaigners for abortion law reform. As in the West, they highlighted the dangers of backyard abortions. A member of Parliament, Sathit Pitutecha, immediately announced that he would draft a bill on “consensual and necessary abortion” for unwanted pregnancies, especially for teenagers. “Let me make it clear that legalising abortion is not liberalising abortion,” he said.

There is little chance that Thailand will make concessions in the short term. As Maytinee Bhongsvej, of the Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women (APSW), says, “People’s attitudes are the major obstacle. For Thai society, abortion is a sin.”

But in the long term?

What is at stake in Thailand is not just whether its abortion laws will be updated to ape countries in the West, but whether its deeply Buddhist culture can survive the embrace with a Western consumerist lifestyle.

Some leading Buddhists are aware of the challenge and denounce abortion as a symbol of the worst aspects of Westernisation. As one writer, Sithsatcha, put it in the nationwide 1981 debate over liberalizing the abortion laws:

The first precept, concerning the taking of life, should continue as the basis for the way this country and our society functions. If we allow this precept to be trampled on, Buddhism will no longer be a national religion. The Lord Buddha would no longer be a figure of trust anymore, the Buddhist teaching would no longer be believed in by the majority of people who, in turn, would lose faith in monks.

A leading figure in lobbying against law reform is the Buddhist activist Chamlong Srimuang. Chamlong is a fascinating character. He was a Vietnam War veteran, a major general in the Army, a governor of Bangkok and a leading figure in the People’s Alliance for Democracy. He has first-hand acquaintance with the West and even has a master’s degree from the US Naval Postgraduate School in California. Think of a Thai Colin Powell.

Yet he has become perhaps the best-known Buddhist campaigner against abortion. Back in 1981, the last time the Thai Parliament grappled with abortion law reform, he succeeded in organising a coalition to defeat it. Although it passed in the lower house by 79 to 3, it was rejected by the upper house by 147 to 1.

He even edited a book entitled Abortion: The last curve on the road to moral catastrophe. Rather than liberalise the abortion laws, he contended, Thais should hew to the five moral precepts of Buddhism – abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and drunkenness.

Such exhortations evidently still ring bells with the Thai people, even though Chamlong is a member of a controversial anti-materialist and anti-consumerist sect, the Santi Asoke. As well, many Thais do not want to become clones of the West. As a leading figure in the movement put it:

Thailand is rich and plentiful. Thailand is a clever country, we have culture, we have industry, we have all sorts of things so many I can’t mention here. We in Thailand don’t need to copy from other countries. If we do, if we fall for the ideas of other countries Thailand will become progressively worse and worse.

Although the Santi Asoke and the Buddhist establishment, or Sangha, have their differences, they are united on opposition to abortion. A leading monk, Phramaha Vudhijaya Vajiramedhi was unequivocal: “In [the] Buddhist view, both having an abortion and performing an abortion amount to murder. Those involved in abortions will face distress in both this life and the next because their sins will follow them.”

Yet there is a paradox in the defiant words of Buddhist leaders. Although they are resisting tenaciously on the abortion front, on contraception they appear to be rudderless.

More significantly, Thailand has been a star performer in government-sponsored family planning. In the 1960s women had an average of about 6.5 children. Now the average is about 1.8 children. Contraception and sterilization are widely available.

Theravada Buddhism, the most common school in Thailand, has offered no resistance to family planning. It opposes the destruction of life, but not preventing births to ensure well-being. Its ideal, in fact, is celibacy, with life as a married householder as a second-best option for those who cannot bear the rigours of life as a monk. Marriage is not a religious ceremony and monks do not officiate at weddings.

McKeown, in his book Buddhist Ethics: a very short introduction, points out that Buddhists are not exhorted to go forth and multiply. On the contrary, the purpose of life is to escape from it:

… rather than a sign of divine bounty, Buddhist doctrine sees birth as the gateway to another round of suffering in the cycle of samsara [the cycle of death and rebirth created by karma]. The generation of new life is not seen in Buddhist teachings as confirmation that one is playing one’s part in the unfolding of a divine plan, but on the contrary, as evidence of failure to attain nirvana.

With its deep respect for life, Buddhism is well-equipped to deal with the confronting life-ending violence of abortion, but not with the subtle life-preventing methods of contraception. All this can be traced back to Buddhism’s negative attitude towards desire or craving, especially sexual desire? Perhaps in an age when technology has made it possible to divorce desire from procreation, Buddhism finds it hard to articulate a convincing and positive explanation for human sexuality.

The unhappy result is that Buddhism fails to confront the dynamics of a contraceptive lifestyle. While the first moral precept of abstaining from taking life is defended tenaciously, alien Western values are rapidly undermining the third precept of abstaining from sexual misconduct. Bangkok is widely reputed to be the commercial sex capital of the world. Even the World Health Organization has observed that family planning has been accompanied by “an increase in pre-marital sex, unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and the transmission of HIV and STIs [sexually transmitted infections]”.

As the West has found, contraception is making abortion more, not less, likely in Thailand. It seems that half of the Thai women seeking abortions are teenagers with unplanned pregnancies. There can be little doubt why the abortion mills thrive despite public disgust, religious denunciations and the danger of police raids.

The sad paradox of prurience and piety is summed up in words from one of the backyard abortionists who sent foetuses to the temple mortuary, a 33-year-old nurse. Lanchakorn Janthamanas told police that she just didn’t have the heart to kill children from late-term abortions if they survived her procedure. In fact, she was raising five of them as her own children. “I commit sin [abortions] every day, so if the kids won’t die, there’s no need to kill them. And I want to have children because I can’t, possibly due to the sin,” she said.

So the real question which arises from the lurid discovery of the tiny cadavers is whether Thai Buddhism will find the strength and wisdom to deal with the encroachment of family planning technology upon human sexuality. The three pillars of Thai identity are the King, the Nation, Buddhism. If Buddhist leaders fail to point the way, could the nation itself totter?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.