Reflections on Pregnancy Loss–in Japan and the US

I wanted to write a quick post about one of the papers on the panel I responded  to this afternoon.  [I’m at the American Academy of Religion meeting this weekend.]  The paper was titled “Memorializing Pregnancy Loss in American Catholicism and Japanese Buddhism,” by Maureen Walsh.  It  was a really, really interesting paper!  This was the thesis of the paper: “In comparative perspective, this paper explores contemporary American Catholic and Japanese Buddhist memorial practices related to pregnancy loss.1 By bringing these practices into dialogue with one another, this comparison demonstrates that though the American Catholic and Japanese Buddhist memorial practices confront the same basic problem they conceive of the problem in different terms, and as a result, propose different responses to it. Whereas American Catholic practices primarily seek to provide healing and reconciliation in times of loss, the Japanese Buddhist memorials also claim to affect the postmortem destinies of fetuses that die before birth through the performance of rituals on their behalf.”
       I thought the  paper was particularly relevant at this time, given Pope Francis’ proclamation of a “Year of Mercy, beginning this December, which will allow individual priests to offer forgiveness for women who have had abortions.  Obviously, both in Catholicism and Japanese Buddhism there are pastoral issues involved here, which she discussed, but her focus was the ritual aspects of abortion and loss, and how ritual functions in healing—and what kind of healing is sought.
          One of the really interesting points in the paper is  that, when it comes to “healing,” there is a very important distinction in the Japanese and Catholic rites.  In Japanese Buddhism, the healing that is hoped for is not only peace and comfort for the woman [and the family as a whole, where appropriate], but also for the fetus—the mizuko, who is believed to need the ritual intervention of the living to gain a favorable rebirth posthumously.  As Dr. Walsh noted, in Japan, it is believed that the funerary ritual practices can actively influence the soteriological destiny of a fetus.  That is, “Rites have the potential to help the mizuko reach the Pure Land.”
            By contrast, in Catholicism, the rites are directed more at what Dr. Walsh calls “epistemological efficacy”—hey are not directed at the ontological reality of the fetus, but rather seek to re-frame the experience, creating a new sense of “knowing” for the women and, by extension, their communities.  That is, the rites seek to heal the loss, shame and grief experienced by the women, and create new narratives of grace and community. This is an important and interesting distinction that points to a very different understanding, represented by two different religious traditions, of the “healing” that is possible in this situation.

However, I do admit to wondering whether or not Cath0lic women also worry about the postmortem state of their “lost” children:  Do they pray for their souls? Do they pay for masses to be said for them?  What is the official church teaching on that?  [Here, I’m thinking particularly about late-term miscarriages, or even still-births.]  If that practice does occur, of course, it would be much more like the mizuko rites Dr. Walsh mentions.  Another point that is relevant here is a practice many Christian priests and pastors can tell stories about:  being asked to baptize a dead baby—or at very least perform a form of a blessing rite—there in the hospital. Clearly, this comes from the desire to “ensure a good rebirth” for the fetus/child–that is, to ensure that s/he goes to heaven.  So, I think I would want to argue that this soteriological certainty that the mizuko rites aim for is not unknown to Christianity as well.
Reading this paper, I was reminded of a recent article in The New York Times, titled “Why I Provide Abortions,” by Dr. Willie J. Parker.  [Why I Provide Abortions] In that piece, he writes, “Ultimately, reading a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged me to a deeper spiritual understanding. I was moved by his discussion of the quality of the good Samaritan and of what made the Samaritan ‘good’. The Samaritan reversed the question of concern, to care more about the well-being of the person needing help than about what might happen to him for stopping to give help. I realized that if I were to show compassion, I would have to act on behalf of those women. My concern about women who lacked access to abortion became more important to me than worrying about what might happen to me for providing the services.”
That’s such a powerful statement, isn’t it?  I think there is  a relationship between what the doctor said and what pastors/priests are called to do for women who have suffered a miscarriage or experienced an abortion.  I think we are called to take that grief and loss into the community itself–and even on ourselves–for the sake of healing and wholeness; although what that looks like, exactly, certainly varies.  I’m still thinking about what the Christian church might learn from Japanese Buddhism here.

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