In recent months, several states have passed sweeping anti-abortion legislation—including some of the most restrictive laws since abortion became legal under the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade—in an effort to bring a legal challenge before a new generation of conservative justices who could overturn the 1973 ruling. By and large, the pro-life activism driving the effort is rooted in the religious right’s view that abortion violates the Christian prohibition on killing. While debate over the legal status of embryos and fetuses has raged in American politics for decades, a similar development in Japanese Buddhism offers an interesting contrast for how the issue of applying religious doctrine to modern medical technology has been approached against different cultural and historical backdrops.
In postwar Japan, conservative Japanese politicians and right-wing commentators bemoaned the degradation of a rapidly modernizing society, citing the soaring abortion rate as the clearest evidence of Japan’s moral decline. They argued that the immorality of women was, in part, responsible for the erosion of traditional social values. Partnering with monks of a similar mindset, they used the rhetoric of mizuko kuyo, a Japanese Buddhist ritual meant to pacify the distraught spirits of babies who have been lost either by abortion or miscarriage. The ritual itself invokes the bodhisattva Jizo, who acts as a guide in the afterlife.
Published a decade ago, Jeff Wilson’s Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America investigates mizuko kuyo and its transformations over time. He explains how the ceremony was seen in Japan as a means for women to atone for their alleged wrongdoings and to resubmit to their proper position in society. But in the late 20th-century transmission of Buddhism to the United States, mizuko kuyo took on a wholly different significance and became a way for both Buddhist and non-Buddhist women to grapple with pregnancy loss—shifting the purpose of the ritual from mandatory penance and the placation of angry ghosts to the healing of personal wounds.
After nine states passed bills to dramatically restrict access to abortion, Tricycle spoke to Wilson to get some more context and take a look at how Japanese and American Buddhists have dealt with abortion, both today and in the past.
Mourning the Unborn Dead suggests that the rise of abortion as a moral issue in the United States and Japan followed a somewhat similar timeline; both became religious causes only after World War II. Could you tell us more about this?
In Japan, abortion was not legal through the war years, but it wasn’t a big issue one way or the other. However, in the postwar period, a new social situation led to a greater demand for pregnancy control. As abortion became more common, people reacted against that and began retroactively developing hardline religious stances.
Interestingly, in the postwar period in the US, religious groups were actually important agitators in helping to move the bar on abortion rights progressively through the fifties and sixties, to its culmination in the Roe v. Wade decision in the early 1970s. These were mostly liberal Protestants and liberal Jews who were arguing that women are harmed, and sometimes killed, by their lack of access to reproductive technologies. During this period, what we think of today as conservative religious groups, primarily Christian groups, were very, very quiet on the abortion issue. Abortion was a procedure that was illegal, had always been illegal, and was not anything they really cared about. Then Roe v. Wade dropped like a bombshell and helped to create the religious right of the last 50 years or so. By the end of the 1970s, abortion was already their defining issue.
You write that the “religious right” in Japan sometimes blamed societal problems on the women who had abortions—they believed that the troubled spirits of forsaken babies can come back and haunt not only the women and their families but also society as a whole.
There were plenty of conservative Buddhists, mostly monks, who propagated this idea of mizuko, or spirits created by the termination of a pregnancy. Yet it would be incorrect to say that the “religious right” in Japan shared one uniform opinion on the abortion issue. There was no coordinated movement that resembled the pro-life movement in the United States. While some of the monks and right-wing commentators specifically attacked women’s choice to end their pregnancies, others did not make a strong differentiation between abortion, miscarriage, or stillbirth. For these folks, any kind of pregnancy loss was indicative of negative karma on the part of the woman in question. Although they differed in their exact opinions, all conservative Buddhists were united in believing that women whose pregnancies didn’t come to term were karmically troubled, and thus in need of ritual intervention by Buddhist specialists.
The majority of monks disagreed with these streams of thought. But mizuko kuyo, used to placate the distressed spirits of fetuses, was their culturally available resource to help their parishioners process what might have been feelings of loss or guilt. The wag-your-finger monks, who blamed women for society’s problems, used the media to amplify their minority voices. But unlike in the US, in Japan there was no political movement to remove access to abortion.
Many American converts initially turned to Buddhism for its alleged dissimilarity to a dogmatic Christianity. There’s a sense of shock and unease when they encounter systems of Buddhist ethics that are pretty stiff and unyielding, and conflict, say, with pro-choice views.
Belief in karma is extremely weak in North American Buddhism compared with what you see in Asian Buddhisms. Karma suggests that because killing is wrong, the termination of a pregnancy is wrong. But how wrong it is ranges widely. North American Buddhists encounter these ideas, and they wonder, “Why is Buddhism, which I thought was so liberal, so anti-choice?” But it’s not about choice—it’s about not incurring karmic debts.
Termination of a pregnancy is believed by most Buddhists to be a demeritorious act (bad karma, in street language), just like any act of harm. So how does it compare to, for example, eating meat, going fishing, or killing vermin? There is little formal guidance on these matters. For some, that means that they don’t see these acts as especially deleterious, while for others the lack of discussion is itself an opportunity to stake out a claim that these are very bad acts indeed.
Do you think that most North American practitioners remain politically pro-choice but morally anti-abortion?
North American converts are almost by definition coming to Buddhism as adults. In other words, these are people whose political opinions are already formed. It’s my observation that Buddhism doesn’t impact their voting practices one way or the other.
For some people, exposure to Buddhism moves them a bit toward the center, but not very far. After discovering that Buddhism generally has a negative view toward abortion, some left-leaning converts feel pressure to endorse an anti-abortion attitude but remain pro-choice. They are wrestling with the fact that women need the right to access, but they also don’t want to be too far out of step with Buddhism as they understand it. They’re trying to find a middle ground. A very small contingent moves all the way to the right, and become pro-life, but I don’t think it’s a terribly significant number of people.
There is the idea that a human rebirth is extremely rare, and as a result destroying a potential human life via abortion might also be destroying someone’s opportunity for enlightenment.
That’s actually not the logical conclusion that Buddhists have typically come to, although it is a potential consequence of Buddhist thought. If we reach into the bag of Buddhism, we’ll find an idea that human rebirth is really auspicious, especially because it’s a rare chance to reach Buddhahood. And if we reach again into the bag of Buddhism, we’ll also find beliefs around non-killing, which includes non-termination of pregnancies. But it’s only recently we’ve seen this particular combination of ideas. Today’s Christians are doing something similar when they reach into the Bible to find quotes that support their pro-life agenda.
I’ve noticed that some Christians cite the “will of God” to justify a pro-life viewpoint even in the face of terrible things like rape. How might this compare to ideas about karma?
Large portions of the pro-life movement sees it as a type of civil rights movement. Motivated out of a sense of compassion and altruism, they believe they are saving the lives of millions of innocent human beings who have no ability whatsoever to protect themselves. They are not ignorant of the fact that, in the process, women are negatively impacted by this. Generally speaking, they believe a person is better off having an unplanned pregnancy than having an abortion. Whether or not they’re right about that, they believe they are meddling in other people’s lives in a very positive way.
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Other cultures are not nearly as meddlesome. In Japan, there’s much more of a sense of not involving yourself in other people’s affairs. Buddhists want to end suffering, but historically they have not sent out vast armies of missionaries across the world to try to change other people’s level of suffering to the extent that Christians have. Most Buddhists assumed that the workings of karma would bring everybody around to the right situation in the fullness of infinite time. Christians don’t believe that. They believe it’s one and done: if you didn’t raise somebody’s happiness or salvation level in this life, you missed your chance. These differing views might explain that while in both countries some anti-abortion sentiment is there, it’s only in the United States that there’s been this significant push to restrict women’s access.
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