The way of compassion

By William Wetherall

A review of
William R. Lafleur
Liquid Life
(Abortion and Buddhism in Japan)
New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993, 257 pages

A version of this article appeared in
The Times Literary Supplement, 10 September 1993, page 11

Note: The paragraphs in blue were dropped from the final galleys because of space.

Japan, with a large and socially diverse population, is complex enough, religiously and politically, for its women to be free to choose whether they want to become mothers. Those who have trouble getting pregnant can make a votive offering to any of several gods of fertility. Those who conceive unwillingly, or have second thoughts in the first twenty-two weeks of their pregnancy, can get an abortion--and then pay tribute to the gods who look after would-have-been children.

Japan's Eugenic Protection Law allows obstetricians to perform an abortion if the woman or her spouse has an inheritable disease, if a close blood relative of herself or of her spouse has given birth to a child with an inheritable disease or a deformity, if she or her spouse has leprosy, if continuation of the pregnancy or delivery would impair the woman's health, or cause her severe economic difficulties, or if the woman has been raped. The father's consent is required only if she is married to him, and if he is able to express his opinion.

Such legal details are conspicuously missing from William R. LaFleur's Liquid Life, which also shuns statistics, and skirts related problems in medical ethics like euthanasia and organ transplants. Yet its focus on "original concepts", "historical processes" and selected "contemporary issues" concerning abortion in Japan is anthropologically rich.

LaFleur claims that "Japan's abortion rate had begun to soar" in the late 1970s and 80s, when he was doing his fieldwork. "In recent years, with the rise in the number of abortions", he states, Buddhist priests have "found that more and more people are looking for some kind of religious service . . . to assuage the guilt or alleviate the distress they are feeling about abortion". He cites no statistics to support such assertions. Indeed, his lucid portrayals of how some Buddhist temples commercially exploit superstitious fears of retribution from aborted foetuses even suggests that the "boom" in sales of guilt-relief icons and rituals does not require an increase in the number (much less the rate) of abortions.

In fact, reported cases and rates of abortion have continually declined from nearly 1.2 million (over 50 per 1,000 women between fifteen and forty-nine years of age) in 1955, to barely 400,000 (fewer than 14 per 1,000) in 1991. And both numbers of cases and rates have been falling in all age groups, except the late teens, for which, in 1991, after a decade of doubling, they reached record highs of 33,286 abortions (6.9 per 1,000).

Like most scholars who despise numbers but bait their hooks with statistical worms, LaFleur is content to leave debates about the accuracy of Japan's official abortion figures to others. Most anti-abortionists multiply government counts by two or three. Those who defend the medical profession, and the bureaucracy that regulates it, counter that most doctors report abortions, as required by law. In his polemical conclusion, LaFleur outlines three positions that represent the range of Japanese opinion about abortion. The "liberationists" support access to abortion as part of the struggle for freedom. These "pro-choicers" may be women's libbers, or Marxists, or just plain anti-conservatives, but they agree that women in Japan are victimized by ideologies of "family" and "nation", and are manipulated by talk of "abortion guilt".

The ranks of what LaFleur has dubbed "neo-Shintoists" include ultra-rightists, who view abortion as a "sin" against the state, the Emperor and the ethnically dominant Yamato race. These "pro-lifers" are heirs to a nativist agrarian nationalism that equates prosperity and strength with the size and racial purity of the population. Today, as fertility rates fall and longevity increases, Japan's conservative politicians and bureaucrats argue that more young Japanese are needed, to minimize dependence on foreign labour, to produce the country's wealth and even to care for its elderly.

Occupying the "flexible" middle ground between these two extremes are the "Buddhists", who, while not advocating the indiscriminate taking of foetal life, feel compassion for women with unwanted pregnancies, and for families that would be weakened by more children. LaFleur is attracted by the manner in which Buddhists "tolerate, and make moral space for, abortion". Such "moral bricolage" represents "an approach that is both more rational and more religious" than either the pro-choice or pro-life extremes: more rational because it allows families to adjust their size to economic realities; and more religious because it provides people with metaphors and rites that help them cope with the emotional and ethical dilemmas of terminating a pregnancy.

Another "eminently pragmatic" feature of the Japanese approach to abortion that moves LaFleur to recommend it to Western pro-lifers and pro-choicers is "the extent that it contributes to social solidarity rather than to fracturedness". He finds it significant that "Westerners who have lived in Japan--including persons who are Christian--have increasingly come to the view that there is an appreciable level of psychological and spiritual sanity" in the rituals that his book is ultimately about: the memorial services for the short stone mizuko, or "water child" effigies, that represent aborted or stillborn offspring.

Most Christians, of course, would view such practices as "ancestor worship" if not "idol worship" (notwithstanding the presence of both in Christianity). But LaFleur's contribution to the "debate about learning from Japan" offers no theological clues as to how a priest or pastor, or a mother with a pregnant teenage daughter, might reconcile the twain.

Though short of being a definitive study of abortion in Japan, LaFleur's overview of its Buddhistic aspects is generally sound and readable, and is certainly timely.