Grisly find at temple paves way for overhaul of Thai abortion laws

Supote Leangbamrong, who worked at Wat Phai Ngern temple, knew instantly that the plastic bags he found contained dead foetuses.

Tan Tam Mei

Tan Tam Mei

The Straits Times


May 23, 2023

BANGKOK – For a long time in 2010, Mr Supote Leangbamrong had to endure a stench at Wat Phai Ngern temple in Bangkok where he built pagodas.

The smell wafted from the temple’s mortuary, just metres away from his rest area, whenever the door was open.

One day, he decided to take a closer look.

“I saw something spill out (in the mortuary). I went over to check, and that’s when I saw many plastic bags full of swollen and rotten remains. Some bags had burst, resulting in the foul smell,” said the 68-year-old.

He knew instantly that the plastic bags contained dead foetuses.

He later saw one of the workers putting more of such bags into the containers used to store bodies before cremation.

“I didn’t say anything because I was afraid that the temple worker would lose his job, and it would become a criminal case,” he told The Straits Times in the second episode of the True Crimes of Asia podcast series.

Mr Supote, who has worked at the temple for over three decades, also did not want to tarnish its name.

But just like how the remains had spilled out of the mortuary containers, the gruesome secret could not be contained.

One day in November 2010, a stray dog wandered into the temple’s marketplace with a plastic bag in its mouth. The foul smell caught the attention of some devotees who discovered the bag’s gruesome contents and called the police.

In 2010, the authorities discovered over 2,000 foetuses, the result of illegal abortions, hidden on the grounds of Wat Phai Ngern temple in Bangkok. ST PHOTO: TAN TAM MEI

Investigations exposed shocking details of the “foetus mortuary” and the underground industry for abortions in Thailand, where the procedure was illegal, with few exceptions such as in the case of rape.

The discovery marked a turning point for Thai society, where the authorities could no longer ignore the fact that women were turning to illegal and unsafe abortions as a result of the strict laws.

Significant legislative changes have been made in recent years, and more women can now seek induced abortions legally. But challenges remain, including stigma and limited resources, which hamper access for women.

From grisly find to overhaul of abortion laws
The authorities recovered 2,002 foetuses – at varying stages of decomposition – from the mortuary grounds.

The remains were believed to have piled up for about a year, after the furnace used for cremations broke down.

Most of the foetuses had been collected from illegal abortion clinics across Bangkok.

A woman named Lanchakorn Janthamanas, reportedly a former nursing assistant, had collected the remains, earning about 500 baht (S$19.60) for each foetus.

She then paid two undertakers, Suthep Chabangbon and Suchart Poomee, to cremate the bodies. She also allegedly ran her own illegal abortion clinic.

The mortuary where the foetuses were stored in 2010 is still on the temple grounds. But the vault doors are locked. ST PHOTO: TAN TAM MEI

The mortuary where the foetuses were stored in 2010 is still on the temple grounds. But the vault doors are locked. ST PHOTO: TAN TAM MEI

The trio were jailed for varying lengths of time, ranging from three to 20 years. Some of their sentences were later reduced.

Politician Ongart Klampaiboon, who was the Minister in the Prime Minister’s office in 2010, was at the scene to handle the case.

He told ST: “I had never seen anything like that before. Previously, we would hear about one such body being discovered from an illegal abortion. But over 2,000 bodies was just shocking.”

There was a major crackdown on illegal abortion clinics across Bangkok in the aftermath of the discovery.

While there had been some debate on the issue of abortion before, the case brought the discussion back in full force and also highlighted the issue of underage pregnancies.

“Thai society started to talk and discuss more about free abortion, and it started to shape (the narrative) on what we should do to protect and educate our children and teenagers on these issues,” said Mr Ongart, an MP and deputy leader of the Democrat Party.

In 2010, abortion was largely illegal in Thailand except for cases where the pregnancy involved rape and incest, and where it would endanger the woman’s health. And even if these conditions were met, it was difficult to find a licensed medical practitioner to conduct the procedure.

But in 2020, a court ruled that the laws criminalising abortion violated equal rights for women. And in 2021, restrictions against abortion were relaxed, paving the way for sweeping changes that now allow women to seek abortions up to 20 weeks into their pregnancy, with approval from a medical practitioner.

The procedure is also covered under the national healthcare insurance. Women who are up to 12 weeks into pregnancy usually take pills to end it, instead of going for in-clinic abortion.

Conservatism hinders access to safe abortion
But while the legal hurdles have been cleared, abortion still faces an uphill battle against conservative attitudes and beliefs in Thailand. This has hindered timely access to a safe, legal procedure for many women, according to activists.

Abortion remains a stigmatised and divisive topic in the Buddhist-majority society, and even in the medical community, said Ms Supeecha Baotip, 55, an activist from pro-choice group Tamtang which helps women seeking the procedure.

Conservative Buddhism considers it a sin for not just the pregnant woman, but also for the medical practitioner. And the fear of karma, or retribution, for the act of abortion has resulted in some doctors refusing to perform the procedure.

“A doctor told me that she was worried her child would get a cleft lip because she helped to perform an abortion. That condition comes from genetics or some other factors, so I didn’t expect a doctor to say this,” said Ms Supeecha.

There are just over 100 medical facilities providing legal abortion services, spread across about half of Thailand’s 77 provinces. Some 300,000 abortions are carried out yearly, with just 15,000 done at authorised clinics, reported local media.

In the capital Bangkok, there is no state hospital which provides abortion services, said Ms Supeecha. The closest state hospital that offers the services is in Singburi, about two hours by car.

And unsurprisingly, people continue to seek alternative means, mostly through buying illegal abortion pills online.

Ms Supeecha had an abortion decades ago, but never dared to tell anyone until the 2010 case. She felt compelled to share her experience on an online blog after seeing how those around her lacked compassion or understanding towards the women involved.

“I wrote my own story and posted it online, as I thought that there should be a woman’s voice in this. That was a big step for me,” she said.

Her story gained traction and she started Tamtang, a non-government organisation that provides a crisis hotline and counselling services for women seeking abortion. It also links them up with clinics or medical professionals that provide safe and legal abortion services.

Ms Supeecha hopes that more people, especially medical practitioners, start to see abortion as an issue of a woman’s choice and health.

“Buddhism also talks about compassion, understanding people, and helping people out of their suffering,” she noted.

And despite the new legislation, the health authorities have yet to issue standard protocols for procedures regarding abortion. This means that some clinics and hospitals have set their own parameters within the law.

For example, some doctors accept cases only where the woman is less than 12 weeks pregnant, or when the pregnancy is a result of rape.

Changing attitudes is a slow process
Changing the mindset of medical professionals has been a big challenge and will take time, Bureau of Reproductive Health director Bunyarit Sukrat told ST in late 2022.

There is, however, a small but growing network of about 500 medical professionals, including doctors, social workers and nurses, who support abortion services across Thailand.

The authorities have also started a pilot programme to offer abortion care services via telemedicine consults. So far, about 50 cases have been handled this way.

“Changing the law was an important step… (but) we cannot expect an immediate change in attitudes,” said Dr Bunyarit.

And some are still wary about discussing the 2010 case, noted Mr Supote.

The Wat Phai Ngern is located in a busy Bangkok neighbourhood next to a school and shops. ST PHOTO: TAN TAM MEI

The Wat Phai Ngern is located in a busy Bangkok neighbourhood next to a school and shops. ST PHOTO: TAN TAM MEI

Following the grisly discovery, people visited the temple to lay out milk, fruit and toys as offerings for the spirits of the foetuses. Thousands also turned up for special merit-making and prayer rituals held for the 2,002 foetuses.

While the scandal has been put to rest, the case has inspired several Thai horror flicks over the years. The case has also earned the temple periodic mention in listicles naming Thailand’s most haunted spots.

Today, the mortuary is still located on the temple grounds, but the doors are locked, and there is little reminder of the incident.

While there are rumours that cries and giggles can be heard from the mortuary, Mr Supote rubbished them.

But as he was walking away after the interview, he turned and said: “Perhaps you should also make an offering to the babies, so you can tell their story.”

scroll to top