Korea's secret sorrow is emerging from the shadows.
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In a companion article, Asian expert Steven W. Mosher describes the South Korean abortion holocaust, which began in the 1960s, as a “secret shame.” And while demographers write of South Korea’s population loss and fertility rates so low that stabilizing the decline may be nearly impossible, there’s another aspect of the Korean abortion tragedy that’s increasingly becoming less secret: women struggling, even after decades, to cope with grief over a past abortion.
In South Korea, as in Japan and Taiwan, poignant displays are appearing in Buddhist and Taoist temples of hundreds, even thousands of statues of Jizo (Chijang or Jijang Bosal, in Korean), looking like baby Buddhas, often dressed in crocheted hats, red bibs and tiny cloaks. Each represents the loss of a child’s life and a mother’s heartbreak.
They give silent witness to the spiritual and emotional pain of abortion. They also refute the claim we routinely hear from those who promote abortion in the U.S. that any suffering after abortion is the product of “Catholic guilt” due to the Church having stigmatized abortion. Here we see, in societies where only a small percentage of the population is Catholic (0.5% in Japan, 2% in Taiwan, 10.9% in Korea), that women are also seeking ways to express their regret and find consolation and peace.
Where did these statues originate? Jizo statues began appearing in Japan, at least since the 1960s, in response to high levels of abortion in that country after World War II. Jizo statues represent the savior god, Jizo, who rescues from Buddhist hells the souls of unborn children who have died from abortion or miscarriage. These children are called Mizuko or “water babies” (having died while surrounded by waters in the womb). They are mourned in a rite called Mizuko kuyo. Along with dressing the statues in baby clothes, offerings are made to Jizo of prayers, toys and flowers.
By the 1990s, the displays of these statues have spread to many temples in South Korea and “water baby offering” rites have become a frequent occurrence. Although nearly half of South Koreans identify as not having a faith, the country is heavily influenced by Buddhist traditions and many non-Buddhists are now also availing themselves of this rite.
It is still unclear if the remains of some children who died before birth are buried in the “cemetery” that Pope Francis is visiting on Saturday, August 16. It may serve as a memorial garden – like so many in the U.S. – where their loss is acknowledged and prayers are said for them. Because abortion in Korea is performed furtively in doctors’ offices and hospitals – rather than openly in high-volume clinics as in the U.S. – the disposal of the bodies of unborn children may be equally furtive.
This new openness and the broad range of activities and programs of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Korea (CBCK) may help change attitudes toward abortion in Korea, so that it will no longer be thought of as a necessary evil. The CBCK has assumed a very active role in educating Koreans about abortion through public events, an annual Day for Life, educational materials, special Masses and programs, including for example, a workshop this past June for seminarians.
Fr. Casimir Song, who leads the CBCK’s office for pro-life activities, along with several of his colleagues, visited the Pro-Life Secretariat of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops five or six years ago, as I recall, to learn over several days how the Church in the United States promotes respect for the lives of unborn children and how it offers healing through Project Rachel Ministry for anyone, of any faith, who is suffering from a past abortion. As women find peace and healing through Christ, they often become the most eloquent advocates for the lives of the unborn, as Pope St. John Paul II observed in Evangelium Vitae, no. 99.
In 2010, another group in Korea courageously stepped forward to denounce abortion: Gynob is an organization of dozens of OB-GYNs who formerly performed abortions. They have asked the public’s forgiveness for having destroyed Korean lives. Dr. Choi Anna admitted, “We sold our souls for money. Abortion was an easy way to make money.” She now lectures on what happens to babies during an abortion procedure. They have asked other doctors to join them and formed another organization “Pro-Life Doctors” which, according to the New York Times, “tries to discourage women from having abortions and runs a hot line to report clinics that perform them illegally.”
With the added attention focused on the tragedy of abortion in Korea by Pope Francis’ visit to a “cemetery” for the unborn, we can hope that the efforts of these doctors and those of the CBCK will soon have a measurable impact in reducing and one day eliminating abortions in Korea.
Susan E. Wills is Spirituality Editor of Aleteia’s English edition.