BANGKOK – On the grounds of a Buddhist temple, dozens of white plastic bags lay in carefully arranged rows. Each sack was knotted at the top and contained the remains of a fetus.
Thai authorities found about 2,000 remains in the temple's mortuary, where they had been hidden for a year — apparently to conceal illegal abortions.
A strong stench had drawn police to the temple in Bangkok's old city Tuesday, and authorities searching the mortuary — where bodies awaiting cremation are normally kept — initially found more than 300 fetuses. They returned Friday to find more than five times that number, according to police Lt. Col. Kanathud Musiganont.
Health officials, police and charity workers counted the fetuses, placing each one in a white plastic bag bearing the charity's name in red Thai script and Chinese characters. The group is often involved in the handling of remains, including recovering bodies from accident scenes and organizing burials.
As the remains were laid out, Buddhist worshippers left offerings for the fetuses: milk and bananas to nourish their spirits in the afterlife.
Abortion is illegal in Thailand except under three conditions — if a woman is raped, if the pregnancy affects her health or if the fetus is abnormal.
Although Thailand is home to a huge and active sex industry, many Thais are conservative on sexual matters, and Buddhist activists especially oppose liberalizing abortion laws.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Friday that more must be done to prevent illegal abortions but that his government would not revise the laws. He said his government has discussed the matter and believed that "the existing laws are appropriate and flexible enough."
Several people have already been arrested in the case: two undertakers for hiding bodies to conceal the cause of death and an abortion clinic employee on charges of operating an unlicensed medical clinic and performing abortions. The undertakers could each be sent to prison for up to a year and fined 2,000 baht ($67). The clinic employee — who police said confessed she had delivered the fetuses to the morgue workers starting early this year — could face up to five years in jail and a fine of 10,000 baht ($333).
Suchart Poomee, 38, one of the undertakers being questioned, confessed Tuesday he had been hired by illegal abortion clinics to destroy the fetuses, police said. He said he had been collecting the fetuses since November 2009. It was not clear why they had not yet been cremated.
Police Col. Sombat Milintachinda said the fetuses found Friday seemed to have been hidden for a longer period of time than those found earlier in the week.
Public Health Minister Jurin Laksanavisith said around 1 million Thai women get pregnant each year, with 60,000 suffering miscarriages and another 80,000 getting legal abortions. He gave no estimate for the number of illegal abortions.
Illegal abortion "requires efforts from both the government and the private sector to promote better understanding about sex among the Thai youngsters," Jurin said.
Suriyadeo Tripathi, the director of Thailand's National Institute for Child and Family Development, said young people were getting mixed messages, and sex education needs to be improved.
"On the one hand, you see many campaigns trying to promote safer sex, but on the other, a lot of people still strongly encourage abstinence and retain a stigma against premarital sex," he said.