Haunted by the ghosts of abortion
Thousands of women turn to Buddhist 'sin-cleansing' ceremonies to make amends for terminating pregnancies, but guilt is hard to shift
Ant checked her list to make sure she hadn’t forgotten any important items for her baby girl. A milk bottle, sweets and toys were neatly packed in, ready for the trip.
But the travel essentials in Ant’s bag were not for a living child.
Once a year, Ant* attends a ceremony at Wat Kae in Suphan Buri province, laden with offerings for the daughter she aborted when she was 13-years-old.
“After all this time, I can feel that Mint is still with me,” Ant said, trying to explain the sense of unease she has lived with for almost two decades. “I’m not sure if she exists, but my life has been much better and more successful since I decided to deal with this.”
Abortion is illegal in Thailand, but there are plenty of back-street clinics offering the procedure.
For Ant, turning to religion helped her cope with the aftermath of her termination.
She, and thousands of other women like her, put their faith in Buddhist abortion ceremonies to cleanse them of sins they committed when they were young and reckless.
PRAYING FOR FORGIVENESS: Phrakru Paisan Thammawong, the abbot of Wat Kae, says abortion rituals help guilty women move on.
At 32, Ant is successful and works in a highly-respected job. But 19 years ago, at the age of 13, she fell in love with a “bad boy” who was part of a local motorcycle gang.
Ant had been born into a wealthy family and her childhood was near perfect, until the day her mother divorced her father. Left with her dad, who was in the navy at the time, Ant craved the attention she could no longer get at home.
Everyone warned her to stay away from the boy, but Ant had never been in love before and fell for his rough charm. One thing led to another, but she thought everything was fine until she missed her period three months in a row.
The teenager bought a pregnancy test and faced up to her worst nightmare. “My dad will kill me if he finds out,” Ant confided in a classmate, knowing there was no way she could tell her family about the problem.
Then she turned to her boyfriend for help. He said he wanted nothing to do with the baby. “Just get rid of it,” he told her, handing over 3,000 baht for an abortion.
Abandoned and alone, Ant felt she had no choice but to abort the child. She asked her friend to take her to an illegal abortion clinic outside Bangkok. She was off school for one week and came back to study again as if nothing had happened.
“I will never forget the experience,” Ant said. “It will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
TOO MUCH TOO YOUNG
Bong* told Spectrum that having an abortion was the worst decision of her life.
She had met her boyfriend at the age of 16. The love birds spent every moment together until a year later, when she became pregnant. Bong was sure her partner would take care of her no matter what, so the pair decided to face the truth and tell her parents what had happened.
But her mum and dad were clear about their opinion on the matter. They said she must abort the child, or risk throwing her future away.
Frightened by her parents’ warning, Bong agreed to the abortion three months into her pregnancy.
“After that, my life just went down hill,” Bong explained.
SEEKING REDEMPTION: At least 1,000 people attend Wat Kae’s abortion ceremony every year. The ritual is usually presided over by about 20 monks.
She was expelled from school not long after teachers found out about the pregnancy. They told her she had missed too many hours in the classroom.
Two years later, she went back to another school and then on to college. But she struggled to find a good job after graduation, and when she did get one, she was unable to keep it for more than three months.
CLOSURE: The coffin is cremated in a symbolic act to mark the end of the ‘sin-cleansing’ ritual.
PAYING THE PRICE
Bong doesn’t claim to have experienced anything supernatural. But she does believe she has faced an unusual number of “roadblocks” in her life.
Her theory is that it is all linked to taking the life of her unborn child.
At the age of 28, she settled down and married a good man. She tried to get pregnant and told herself that she would make up for the abortion this time around. But each time she conceived, she suffered a miscarriage at three months. They tried repeatedly, but she could never carry the baby past three months.
Frustrated and worried, Bong talked to her parents about the issue. It was her mother who suggested she attend an annual sin-cleansing ceremony for women who’ve had abortions.
Bong is now planning to attend the next ritual at Wat Kae in Suphan Buri, due to be held in August.
She has been told to prepare a list of items to bring along, including a baby mattress, milk bottle, toys and baby clothes. The most important thing, she said, is that she must give the aborted child a name and write it down on a special piece of paper.
As part of the ceremony, monks will chant the same prayers that are used at funerals and merit-making ceremonies for the dead. The offerings will be a symbolic gift from mother to child, to allow both parties to find peace.
“I must be cursed by the baby I aborted,” Bong said.
Ant attended her first sin-cleansing ceremony seven years ago, before she started her new family. She originally went to a different temple in Samut Prakarn province, but the ritual is similar wherever you go. She offered baby-related items to the monks, who recited prayers to appease the soul of her unborn child.
“I don’t know if my aborted girl really received what I gave her through the monks or not, but it did make me feel better,” Ant said.
Ant has continued to attend an abortion ceremony every year and now goes to Wat Kae. She has made friends with other women who shared the same experience and is now more open about what happened in her past.
“I think we’ve all felt guilty and ashamed,” Ant explained. “We can’t change the past but we can make today better.”
DEARLY DEPARTED: Monks chant the same prayers that are used at funerals and merit-making services for the dead. Child-related offerings are blessed.
SINS THAT WON’T WASH
Monks across Thailand perform rituals for people who believe their wrongdoings can be absolved by religion. Temples attract many who are running from their sins — from telling lies and committing adultery, to theft and murder.
Phrakru Paisan Thammawong, the abbot of Wat Kae in Suphan Buri, admits his temple is well-known for its abortion ceremonies, but says the rituals do not claim to vindicate women for past deeds.
The abbot told Spectrum there is widespread misunderstanding about the annual ceremony.
“Abortion is one of the worst sins that one can commit. Nothing can cleanse this sin. Nothing in the world,” Phrakru Paisan said.
“What we are doing is actually to make people feel better, less guilty, and help them get over the roadblocks in their lives.”
The reason this particular temple is so popular for the ritual is because it features in the tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen, a Thai folklore classic set in the late 1500s.
Khun Phaen, one of the main characters in the story, was said to have lived at Wat Kae.
In the story, Khun Phaen makes the first kuman thong, or baby amulet, by removing the foetus of his dead wife’s unborn child from her womb and grilling it in a black magic ritual. The legend says the foetus was then covered in gold, so the unborn child became a ghost called kuman thong, or “golden boy”.
Khun Phaen used the baby amulet to protect him on the battlefield. Wat Kae holds another annual ceremony to make merit for the spirit of the baby that made that lucky charm.
OFFERINGS: Women must bring baby toys to the rituals, and are required to name their unborn child.
Since the temple is well-known for its kuman thong event, it has become popular among those seeking freedom from their abortion guilt.
Wat Kae’s big abortion ceremony on Aug 30 will be the 10th such ritual held at the temple in the past nine years. For those who don’t have time to go out and buy the required baby items, the temple will prepare packs of clothes and toys on sale for 300 baht.
The money made during the ceremony — and the offerings to the aborted babies — are usually donated to children’s charities, hospitals or orphanages.
Phrakru Paisan said 20 monks are required to chant during the ceremony, because more than 1,000 people normally attend. The ceremony attracted at least 3,000 women the first year it was held.
All attendees are required to write the names of their children on a piece of paper. Then names are then placed in a single coffin, which is cremated at the end of the ceremony.
“Many women cry during the ceremony,” said Phrakru Paisan. “I always tell them that taking a life is the worst sin. They may not be able to undo that, but the point of the ceremony is to make people feel better about moving forward.”
SAYING GOODBYE: A coffin is filled with pieces of paper bearing the names of aborted children.
PLAGUED BY MEMORIES
Many Thai women have abortions at illegal clinics. What most people don’t know is that abortion can be conducted legally in Thailand, if the mother attends a certified clinic and consultation centre.
Supharpha Ongsakul, is the deputy director of the Holt Sahathai Foundation, that offers such a service. She has almost four decades of experience dealing with the issue and says 90% of women with unwanted pregnancies are seeking an abortion.
Thai law permits abortion under four conditions: if the pregnancy puts the health of the mother at risk, if the child is not healthy, if the mother is a rape victim and if the pregnancy will affect the mental health of mother.
If women coming to the foundation for a consultation meet any of these criteria and pass the evaluation process, they are sent to a certified clinic for a safe and legal abortion.
The majority of those who come for consultations are students and young women aged between 17 and 23. A smaller number of older women come in — most who are mistresses of men having affairs.
The foundation allows abortions to be carried out in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Past that date, women are advised to carry the pregnancy to full term and offer their children for adoption. In many cases, the mothers end up keeping their children after they give birth, Ms Supharpha said.
“When women come here, I don’t tell them whether to abort their children or not. We talk about the possible outcomes and let them make the decision by themselves,” she explained.
If the family of the woman is ready and able to support her pregnancy, financially and emotionally, the foundation will encourage her to keep the child. In some cases this is possible, but in others it is not.
Ms Supharpha said women who have had abortions are often plagued by guilt, while society’s attitude toward them makes it worse. “Just because someone doesn’t conform to social norms, doesn’t mean that person is bad,” she said.
HEAVY BURDEN: Charity worker Supharpha Ongsakul says society shames those who have abortions.
To the outside world, 57-year-old Pen* seems to have it all — a successful business, a caring husband and two intelligent children. But in order to get to this point, Pen has been through a lot.
When she was young, she aborted a child that she wasn’t ready to take care of. At the time, she just wanted to move on with her life. Later on down the line, she married and started a family.
Life went smoothly until her 19-year-old daughter woke up one night and was unable to breath.
“I remember my daughter’s face turned green as she tried to breath. It looked like she was suffocating for no reason,” Pen said.
Fearing for her child’s life, she rushed her daughter to the hospital, not far from their house.
Doctors admitted the teenager, but were unable to find what was wrong. She stayed in the hospital for two nights and was discharged without diagnosis. When she returned home, the same thing happened again. Pen quickly took her daughter back to the hospital, where she was put on a respirator for a week.
Pen’s daughter told her mother that she had been having recurring nightmares in which a girl sat on her and strangled her as she slept. She had been trying to stay awake so that she wouldn’t be haunted by the dreams, but became weak and needed to rest. The doctors ran lots of tests, but they all came back clear.
Pen decided to send her daughter to another hospital for a second opinion.
On the way to the hospital, her daughter screamed for no reason and went unconscious. The new hospital admitted her to the intensive care unit. The doctors ran tests and could find nothing wrong, but she remained unconscious for a whole week.
LIFE OF REMORSE: Wat Kae’s abortion ceremony on Aug 30 will be the tenth such ritual at the temple in the past nine years. Some women attend every year and claim the events have solved their problems.
By now, Pen was desperate and willing to try a different approach.
“I went to a witch doctor who asked me if I had ever had an abortion,” Pen said. “When I said yes, he told me the spirit of the aborted child wanted to kill my daughter, to possess her body and live as a human.”
The witch doctor prescribed a ceremony to solve Pen’s problems. He told her she would need a ceramic kuman thong doll for the spirit of her unborn child to inhabit.
Within a week, Pen had prepared everything and invited her aborted child into the body of the kuman thong. She named him and bought him clothes, snacks and toys.
Her daughter regained consciousness after the ceremony was complete and was unable to remember anything that had happened to her over the previous two weeks.
Ant said she also had strange experiences after aborting her baby — plus a feeling that someone was constantly watching her and following her around.
“I’ve often felt someone was tugging at my leg, or playing with my hair, or trying to get into my bed at night,” Ant said. “Sometimes I would see a beautiful girl in my dreams. She told me that she was my daughter.”
Ant said she never felt scared, but was glad to know the child she aborted was happy and playful.
SOLEMN RITE: ‘The point of the ceremony is to make people feel better,’ says Phrakru Paisan.
A SECOND CHANCE
Looking back on her work since the 1970s, Ms Supharpha said little has changed in terms of the number of women seeking abortions. But what has changed is the educational background of the women who came in for consultations.
Statistics show that in the past, the majority of women approaching the foundation with unplanned pregnancies were girls from the provinces who had come to work in the city.
Most had only been educated to around the age of 11. But these days, the women seeking abortions are largely born and bred in Bangkok, with a secondary school or university education.
“Abortion doesn’t make someone a bad person,” Ms Supharpha explained. “The problem is not the woman having the abortion, the problem is that we can’t seem to get sex education right.”
Ms Supharpha argued that poor sex education will lead to even bigger social problems in future.
“If there are too many unwanted and abandoned children without support, they risk being left out of society.”
Most women pass the criteria and are able to have a legal abortion, Ms Supharpha said. They have a counselling session with the foundation before the procedure, but they don’t come back after the operation.
“I’ve heard that many women who abort their children experience various unexplained events, but I don’t think ghosts are coming to visit them.
“It’s more likely to be guilt playing on their mind and making them see things,” Ms Supharpha said.
“What they actually need is a second chance to live their lives as normal people again.” n