The fate of the temple’s fetus morgue

A few days ago, we looked at a startling story from Thailand where 2,000 dead fetuses from illegal abortion clinics were found at a Buddhist temple. The story indicated that monks were not aware of what was taking place, but there were inevitable implications for the temple.

The New York Times published new stories today, including one that suggested the morgue will be torn down to be replaced by a meditation center.

The fetuses are to be cremated after autopsies are performed and members of the public, expected to number in the thousands, gather at the temple on Saturday as monks chant Buddhist prayers of mourning.

Since the fetuses’ discovery, people have been placing offerings of milk, baby clothes and toys at the temple morgue.

We also read about a woman who adopted eight children that survived abortions. The earlier story omitted part of a quote where she described her aborting babies as a “sin.” We had some good comments discussing her reaction, especially in the context of a primarily Buddhist country.

John Willard said:

I would have liked a closer examination of what this woman means by sin. Did she use that word or is it the reporters translation? What does sin, or its equivalent, mean in a buddhist context?

Jerry added:

The story did not identify her as a Buddhist so perhaps she is a member of another religion. Or perhaps she’s using the word ‘sin’ in a secular sense since Buddhism does not have a theological concept of sin. Still, it is a good question.

The latest story from the Times includes the full quote from the woman, Lanchakorn Janthamanas, who appears to contradict her mother.

“I am proud of my daughter for her contribution to society,” said the mother, Sombat Sinotho, 60, speaking of the abortions she had performed. “Only those who have not faced the problem of an unwanted pregnancy tend to view her as evil.”

Ms. Lanchakorn said she had rescued eight fetuses that had survived the procedure and was now raising them as her own adopted children. “I commit sin every day,” she said, “so if the kids won’t die, there’s no need to kill them.”

Her mother said she had only learned from newspaper accounts that they were the survivors of abortions.

The mother and daughter’s religious backgrounds are still unclear and might shed more light on how they react to abortion. We also talked about how the story could explain a Buddhist view of abortion, which could vary. The new story explores that further.

The penalty for performing an illegal abortion is as many as five years in prison and a fine of up to 10,000 baht, or about $330. The penalty increases if the abortion seriously injures the pregnant woman.

But the penalties may be higher in the spiritual realm.

“In Buddhist view, both having an abortion and performing an abortion amount to murder,” said Phramaha Vudhijaya Vajiramedhi, a leading monk who was quoted on Saturday in Post Today, a Thai-language newspaper. “It is a serious sin.” He added: “Those involved in abortions will face distress in both this life and the next because their sins will follow them.”

What’s unclear is whether this is the majority belief among Buddhist leaders and whether it’s specific to Thailand. The other interesting development was the ceremonies that took place for the aborted fetuses.

An official of the Buddhist hierarchy here said temple ceremonies were in effect ceremonies of mourning.

“We have to look at its purpose: to show compassion for the souls of the aborted fetuses and lead them to rest in peace,” said Amnart Buasiri, director of the Secretariat of the Sangha Supreme Council. “It is considered the same as the mass mourning for tsunami victims.”

The story suggests that there could be political implications from the discovery. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is quoted as saying, “Longstanding social values must be corrected.” Those “social values” are still unclear. The Nation newspaper offers some new details about how the laws could shift as a result of the nation-wide discussion.

The Senate yesterday opposed the widely discussed legal amendment that eases the conditions for legal abortion, saying that systematic and effective sex education would be a better way to deal with the issue.

…Senator Phornphan Bunyarattaphan said the bill focused on preventative measures, cultural awareness and education on effective birth-control methods.

The bill also requires government-run facilities to accommodate young mothers as well as to provide them and their newborn with free healthcare and free birth control.

The evolving story offers reporters a number of ways to explore this from a political, cultural, ethical angles. Given the discovery at a Buddhist temple, the religion angles are just too difficult to ignore.

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  • Chris Atwood

    Why are you running photos of Tibetan/Mongolian Buddhist cham/tsam dancing with a story about Thai Buddhism? It’s like having a photo of an Italian Catholic mass with a story of Southern Baptist church politics.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Chris, I debated over this photo for a little bit, actually. I didn’t want to do something vaguely Buddhist, and I certainly didn’t want to picture a random Thai temple that wasn’t part of the story. I couldn’t find a free picture of the temple in the news, so I tried to look for something about Buddhism and life/death. I came across this image of “the Dance of the Lord of Death” and though it was interesting with the death reference. If you have better ideas, let me know!

  • Jerry

    Thanks. This story is worth the followup GR posting.

    I’ve been doing some reading about abortion and Buddhism. The situation appears somewhat complex as http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/buddhistethics/abortion.shtml outlines. That page quotes the Dalai Lama:

    Of course, abortion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is an act of killing and is negative, generally speaking. But it depends on the circumstances.

    If the unborn child will be retarded or if the birth will create serious problems for the parent, these are cases where there can be an exception. I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.

    A different viewpoint is given here http://buddhism.about.com/od/basicbuddhistteachings/a/abortion.htm so it seems Buddhism provides an ethical and moral framework which Buddhists should use to approach this question and not a black/white a priori judgment.

    But, of course, this is somewhat abstract and I suspect that the situation of the story, abortion for viable fetus’ in the third trimester when the health of the woman was not involved, is way beyond such nuances.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Jerry, thanks for the links. I also consulted that BBC roundup. I’m glad the new story included a Buddhist response, though it felt like one leader in particular. It’s hard to make sweeping judgments based on one person’s comments.

  • Chris Atwood

    About abortion in Buddhist countries in general, here are some books I’ve seen reviewed (although I haven’t read them myself):

    Buddhism and Abortion, edited by Damien Keown

    Abortion, Sin and the State in Thailand, by Andrea Whittaker

    Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan, by William R. LaFleur

    Haunting Fetus: Abortion, Sexuality, and the Spirit World in Taiwan by Marc L. Moskowitz

    Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan, by Helen Hardacre

    Abortion before Birth Control: The Politics of Reproduction in Postwar Japan, by Tiana Norgren

    With amazon.com’s “look inside this book” you can get a fair amount of brief info pretty quick from these books. Suffice it to say, the idea that saying abortion is a sin is indeed the usual Buddhist idea. (But of course the exact nuance of the concept of sin is different). Here’s an interesting NY Times article on it: http://www.nytimes.com/1996/01/25/world/in-japan-a-ritual-of-mourning-for-abortions.html .

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    After consulting with Chris, I switched to the “Liquid Life” picture. Thanks for the resources and link for further ideas.

  • Julia

    Amazing story in the NYT about ritual mourning for abortions in Japan. SEE Chris Atwood comment for the link.

    I’m guessing that “sins” in Buddhism is tied in with karma?

  • http://religionculturepower.blogspot.com Christopher W. Chase

    I’m glad to see others have pointed out that pictures accompanying stories should at least be tied in more directly tied to either the tradition at hand (mostly popular Theravada/Nikaya) or the subject matter, although I would suggest a Thai temple (most of which do involve ceremonies dealing with sin/karmic demerits) would be more appropriate. Abortion in Japanese Buddhism is very much its own issue tied in with both the Shinto and bodhisattva traditions, especially the Bodhisattva Jizo, who has a special interest in miscarried/aborted children, as well Shinto ideas of the very young and very old being less human/more spirit, as LaFleur’s book explains. Theravada has no specific equivalent, except in terms of folk tradition and older native deities that now function as guardians of the Dharma.

    Contrary to what some might think, the language of sin and evil is very much a part of Buddhism, Thai and otherwise. It’s just not in a context of the Abrahamic tradtions. Even the early major ethical works of Theravada Buddhism such as the Dhammapada make explicit reference to prohibitions against killing and sexual misconduct, both for professional monastics and lay householders. Actions such as adultery, premarital sex, homosexual behavior and abortion are expressly forbidden by the vinaya. Karmic demerits come with heavy social sanctions by kinspeople. Atonement would likely involve participating in these mourning ceremonies. increased participation in Dana and Paritta, and Buddha-puja’s, along with annual remembrances and prayers. A number of folk/popular ceremonies exist as well.

  • http://religionculturepower.blogspot.com Christopher W. Chase

    I’m very glad to see the NYT following up on this–I just hope more context will come through with these subsequent stories. Just as in some other countries, politicians in Thailand do use the language of moral crusades and moral reform when they see it as appropriate. Ms. Lanchakorn’s adoption of the abortion-survivors would definitely constitute a popular and social form of “merit-making,” which would serve as a constant atonement for the sins of everyday life, like killing animal/insect pests, for example.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Apparently another translation for this concept, whatever it is, is “transgression” or “defilement”. Possibly “negative action” is closer. It’s hard to tell, though, because Buddhism covers sooooo much territory. People in this country seem to get into a very “back to basics” sort of Buddhism with very spare cosmology, whereas tons and tons of other countries are full of the kind of Buddhism that’s all about gods and festivals and stuff.


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