Ad­dress­ing the souls of aborted ba­bies in Tai­wan

The Covington News - - Religion -

TAIPEI, Tai­wan — Thick in­cense smoke filled the gilded, elab­o­rately carved tem­ple. The 50-year-old woman knelt down and bowed be­fore a ta­ble piled with plas­tic toys and baby bot­tles.

Clasp­ing her hands in sup­pli­ca­tion, Lin Shu-wen ut­tered a short prayer for the two abor­tions she had more than 20 years ago. For, as it reads in Chi­nese on a small al­tar nearby, “the ba­bies pre­vented by fate from ever be­ing tied to their par­ents.”

The re­tired his­tory teacher is one of scores of women who came to Ching Shui Tem­ple in Taipei over the last month to make sim­i­lar pray­ers. With abor­tion be­com­ing less taboo in Tai­wan, sev­eral dozen Bud­dhist and Taoist tem­ples of­fered a “baby souls mourn­ing” ser­vice dur­ing ghost month, a time when Tai­wanese honor wan­der­ing ghosts in the hope they will be pla­cated and cease to haunt the liv­ing.

In of­fer­ing the baby souls ser­vice, the tem­ples — long­time op­po­nents of abor­tion — are rec­og­niz­ing a re­al­ity they none­the­less re­gret: Abor­tions are on the rise.

The new rit­ual is ridiculed by many here, who see it as a back­ward su­per­sti­tion. Some re­spected monks also con­demn it for not re­flect­ing of­fi­cial Bud­dhist doc­trine.

But Lin said she had no hes­i­ta­tion about tak­ing part in the cer­e­mony, dur­ing which a red- robed Taoist priest rang a bell to sum­mon up baby spir­its as she prayed for the re­demp­tion of her aborted fe­tuses.

A mother of two adult daugh­ters, Lin said she had two abor­tions in her mid-20s be­cause she feared the ex­tra bur­den would short-cir­cuit her bud­ding ca­reer. Now, she re­grets the de­ci­sion.

“I could have raised them,” she said. “My mother sold fish in the mar­ket with her big tummy and yet she raised all her seven kids.”

In Tai­wan’s tra­di­tional Con­fu­cian so­ci­ety, abor­tions used to be frowned on, be­cause they were seen as the un­wanted out­come of loose or il­licit sex. All that be­gan to change in the 1970s, when the is­land’s econ­omy grew spec­tac­u­larly and many work­ing women wanted to keep their fam­i­lies lim­ited to one or two chil­dren.

Growth in teenage sex added to the num­bers, and by last year, gy­ne­col­o­gists say, one fe­tus was aborted for ev­ery three births.

Tai­wanese law per­mits abor­tion for women 18 years and older. Those un­der 18 need parental con­sent, and that drives many to seek il­le­gal clin­ics or abor­tion drugs to keep their preg­nan­cies se­cret from par­ents, abor­tion rights ac­tivists say.

Re­li­gious groups were once at the fore­front of the anti-abor­tion move­ment, rail­ing against the le­gal­iza­tion of the prac­tice in 1985. Now, with the bat­tle ef­fec­tively lost, some tem­ples are try­ing to spur soul-search­ing among women who have had abor­tions.

Ching Shui Tem­ple is a lead­ing pro­po­nent of the new ap­proach.

It touted its elab­o­rate “baby souls mourn­ing” rit­ual as a chance to help un­born chil­dren be rein­car­nated, pos­si­bly into well-to-do fam­i­lies, pro­vided the moth­ers pray hard enough, says tem­ple priest Chen Chun-kai.

“We tell the women fe­tuses are com­plete with souls and must not be re­moved on a whim,” Chen said. “In the old days, ba­bies only died at birth or through nat­u­ral deaths, they were not aborted.”

While most young women dis­miss the baby souls mourn­ing rit­ual as su­per­sti­tion, a vo­cal mi­nor­ity ap­pear to em­brace it, Chen said.

“When they ran into mishaps in their lives or ca­reers, they be­gan to won­der if the aborted ba­bies were tak­ing re­venge,” he said.

Some smaller tem­ples are of­fer­ing on­line mourn­ing rit­u­als for women who do not want to risk pub­lic ex­po­sure dur­ing the baby souls cer­e­mony. The “Baby Palace” set up by Taoist monk Chi Chin-cheng charges $64 for e-mail­ers to rein­car­nate aborted fe­tuses.

But this mar­riage of high tech­nol­ogy and re­li­gious rit­ual is far from uni­ver­sally pop­u­lar.

Tsai Wan-chen, sec­re­tary gen­eral of fem­i­nist group Tai­wan Women’s Link, says Tai­wan needs to step up sex ed­u­ca­tion, rather than prac­tice su­per­sti­tion.

Schools “still mainly teach stu­dents to avoid pre­mar­i­tal sex, not ad­dress­ing their sex­ual de­sires and the need for birth con­trol,” Tsai said.

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