The Buddhist Abortion Ritual

Photo by Magalie L’Abbé via Flickr.





When I eased away from Roman Catholicism and then from Anglo-Catholicism, I knew what I would miss most was the stirring beauty of the rituals. Those gestures and incantations, the solemn bell, the use of fire, water, oil, and ash, touched something deep inside me. The New Agey rituals people “invented” seemed trite and shallow, utterly self-indulgent, by comparison.

Or so I thought, until I realized I had been inventing rituals all along.

When I finally said goodbye to a boyfriend my friends came to call “the architect from hell,” we burned his business card in a punch bowl, reducing his charm to a charred heap. When I married, we declared Friday nights sacred—pizza and a movie, nowhere but the couch. Calling pizza and a movie sacred might raise a few eyebrows, but what was sacred was the time together, just us, phones off, the world walled out.

After I cut myself off from larger, formal rituals, I continued to invent smaller ones for myself. A long, slow shower felt like baptism, a rebirth that shed stress and toxins and let me find fresh ease in my own skin. Holiday customs, milestone celebrations, meals prepared with care to draw people together—all rituals.

They are acts designed to honor and to infuse meaning.

They are our way of paying attention.

You cannot be fickle or slapdash, argumentative or indifferent, when enacting a ritual. You must slow yourself to its rhythms. The same act, rushed through, will be nothing more than rote habit. Ritual cultivates reverence. And just about everything in our current world—its speed, its doom, its notifications and buzzes and alerts, and reminders—mitigates against reverence. We bore easily and shop constantly, looking for stuff and thrills. We move through overbusy days and obligations on auto-pilot. Stressed, we turn to endorphins and altered states of consciousness to silence our sadness or pain.

Meanwhile, those of us who have moved away from organized religion are shy about borrowing its ways. And politically, it is hard to find areas of common grace, ritual spaces that are more concerned with humanity than with who is right or wrong.

I am thinking specifically of abortion. In this country, we have spent decades arguing over words—fetus or embryo or baby, cell cluster or human person, termination or murder, pro-life but which life? A woman who is not in a position to go through with a pregnancy is forced to coolly insist she has a legal right to swipe away a cluster of cells. She is not given time afterward, nor does she give herself time, to acknowledge a loss. That loss has been politicized out of existence.

Now, with the recent Supreme Court decision, more women will wind up bearing a child they do not want or cannot care for. In those situations, there is no room for ritual at all. Meaning is crowded out, replaced by exigency.

Neither outcome respects life.

For complicated reasons, abortion has been legal in Japan since 1948, through the fifth month of pregnancy. But that does not mean abortions are done casually. Rather, they are mourned as necessary losses. No one screams “Murderess!” or waves a photo of minuscule feet in a woman’s face. There are no knock-down, drag-out public debates, no otherwise dubious candidates voted into office solely because of their stance on this issue. The strong consensus is that it is a woman’s right to decide what happens inside her body.

And because of that calm, there is time to feel the decision.

Buddhist temples are filled with tiny statuettes known as mizuko jizo. One of the most beloved Japanese deities, Jizō is the guardian of children, and most especially of the souls of mizuko, stillborn, miscarried, or aborted fetuses. Particular statuettes have come to represent a potential life, taken because a woman was not able at that time to love a child into being. For years after having an abortion, women visit these temples, find their mizuko jizo, and remember—with a mix of grief and relief, sorrow but seldom regret—the life they conceived but felt they could not carry. In formal rituals, the figures are tenderly dressed in bonnets and bibs.

We would be terrified to do that, afraid it was either a concession to the rhetoric of the pro-life movement or a casual complicity in murder.

Rather than argue about the precise, magical moment that cells become a being or morality clicks in a different direction, Japanese Buddhists simply accept the occasional need to stop new life before it develops further. They then turn to metaphor. Aborted fetuses are understood to be stranded on the banks of the river that separates the worlds of life and death. Too young to have souls, they need to be helped across that river to the land of the dead. And the way they are helped is with a ritual, mizuko kuyō, that both mourns and heals.

To the western mind, this sounds like an eerie fairy tale. Psychologically, though, it strikes me as sound. It accepts the ambiguous status of the fetus, the way it exists betwixt and between, not yet fully in this world yet difficult to banish. And for a woman who has undergone an abortion, that last act of helping acknowledges and softens the loss.

A number of women in this country have recognized the ritual’s importance and borrowed it for themselves. The typically polarized response? That the ritual “provides fresh ammunition for both sides of the American cultural war over abortion: pro-life interpreters present it as evidence that abortion is universally traumatizing, while pro-choice interpreters use it as proof that religious rather than legal means can effectively deal with negative post-abortion feelings.”

We cannot see that making abortion legal yet acknowledging and grieving the loss might be healthier than either banning it or minimizing its significance. In the end, we are the ones stuck on the river bank, fighting at cross-purposes.

Ritual lives in the land of paradox. It does not force; it makes room.



Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.