Japanese resort to abortion but show reverence for child's spirit

June 29, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Each a foot high and each in a red, crocheted bonnet and red, pleated bib, stone statues with identical cherubic faces stand in tidy rows under the cherry trees of a Buddhist temple courtyard near Tokyo Tower.

This is the part of the temple grounds some Japanese call the "abortion corner." In a country that leads the world in modern progress, these stone cherubs are mute witnesses to a government health bureaucracy that has dug in its heels for four decades against the pill that revolutionized family planning in the rest of the world.

"Yes, my husband asked me to get another abortion five years ago," a woman in her 40s said as she prepared to light joss sticks before paying respects to one of the cherubs. The visitor was visibly nervous discussing an intimate topic, and she asked that her name not be published.

"We had two children in junior high school at that time, and now, this statue represents two children we decided not to have," she said.

For hundreds of feet in either direction, the rows of cherubs stretch around corners and into crannies, 1,200 in all at this temple.

Here and there, a woman or a man bends forward before a statue, incense in hand, supplicating the spirit the stone image represents. Amid the cherubs, parents and children pour out cups of water to honor a statue of Kannon, Buddhism's spirit of mercy.

The statues can represent the spirits of any child conceived but unborn, stillborn or deceased in infancy or very early childhood. But given Japan's excellent prenatal and infant health care, the overwhelming majority are those of fetuses whose parents chose abortion.

At this temple, Zojoji, the 600-year-old headquarters of the Jodo sect of Buddhism, the elders first set aside space for the statues in 1973. By 1976, they decided the courtyard could not hold any more.

Buddhism is a gentle religion in which every creature -- even a lowly ant -- is considered a worthwhile thing, but it is a quickly forgiving religion, too. There is no organized opposition to abortion in Japan, only reverence, even for the unborn.

Thousands of temples all over Japan are home to similar ranks of stone cherubs. Additional thousands of temples, with less space, resort to a single, larger-than-life, generic cherub.

Agonizing birth control

The Health and Welfare Ministry has been recording about 450,000 abortions a year for a half-decade in this country of about 123 million. That's about a third of the number recorded in the United States each year.

But family planning advocates say the figure here is only part of the picture. National health insurance doesn't cover abortions, and so doctors are usually paid in cash. Many are thought to under-report the abortions they perform in order to avoid taxes. Still others accede to family requests to list the operation as some other procedure.

So no one claims to know the number of pregnancies that end in abortion here every year, but everyone agrees it is high. And all agree that by far, most abortions are performed on married women.

While Americans and some Europeans make abortion a topic of political controversy, many Japanese think of it as little more than an agonizing birth control method of last resort.

For most Japanese, the preferred method is the condom, usually combined with the rhythm method. Three decades after most other countries adopted the pill, Japan's conservative health bureaucracy refuses to approve it for anything but correcting health problems, such as irregular menstruation.

A year ago, the health ministry said it was about to relent and allow marketing of the low-dose pill.

Family planning agencies geared up for an education campaign. Their chief target was to be widespread fear of side effects. Their main weapon was to be a growing body of studies showing that the more recent, low-dose pills cause far fewer problems than the original.

Then the ministry reconsidered and decided not to add the pill to Japanese women's list of legal birth-control methods. Officials said they decided the age of AIDS was no time to experiment with anything that might encourage people to abandon the condom.

Today, abortion is considered one of those few corners of Japan's post-bubble economy that are still booming.

Paying the price

As couples cope with reduced overtime and bonuses amid the country's worst recession since World War II, all accounts say that more are deciding they cannot afford to let unplanned pregnancies lead to children they may not be able to afford.

Many choose instead to lay out the $650 to $750 it costs for an abortion.

For parents who choose to ease the guilt by venerating the fetus' spirit, a stone cherub adds about $450 or $500 to the cost. Temple contributions add another $70 or $80 a year.

Fresh knitted caps and bibs cost about $40 a set. At Zojoji, a plastic pinwheel enlivens each cherub's place. Replacement pinwheels can add another $25 or $30 a year.

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