Addressing the souls of aborted babies in Taiwan
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.