The Evolving Personhood of the Fetus: Abortion Ritual in Taiwan within the Transnational Flow

Image credit: abortion by the Babak Fakhamzadeh /Flickr, license CC BY- NC 2.0

Written by Grace Cheng-Ying Lin.

In Taiwan, abortion rituals (嬰靈超渡, 嬰靈供養) have been gaining popularity since the 1980s. The ritual attempts to appease or rescue Yingling (fetus spirits嬰靈), the spirits of fetuses that have died from abortions or miscarriages. Within most contemporary religious discourse, abortion is seen as an inappropriate means of ending a life. Yingling are believed to wander in the world of the living or the world of the dead (the underworld), and are longing for the care of their parents. This discourse further claims that fetus spirits should be released from their attachments and sent back into the cycle of reincarnation for rebirth, so that their parents’ karma could be reduced. Abortion rituals in Taiwan nowadays are conducted by both Buddhist and Taoist institutions and there are variations in ritual form from region to region, temple to temple, and shrine to shrine. Most patrons and participants in abortion rituals are, not surprisingly, women. Some scholars have demonstrated how religious institutions profit by provoking women’s guilt; however, others argue that the ritual assists the participant in mapping out her strategies towards the past and the future.

Another aspect of the “newness” of the abortion ritual is the imagery that is evoked of the fetus. This was revealed in an interview with the staff of the Ultimate Hall of Complete and Virtuous Eternity, Wuji Yuanshan Tang 無極圓善堂, that I conducted in October 20, 2009:

“Senior, I have had an abortion.” A single, elementary school teacher came to the Hall and sought help. She had more than one boyfriend so she was not sure who was the father of the fetus spirit who had been wandering around her. She decided to have the abortion because the pregnancy was pre-marital. As a teacher, she needed to act as a role model to her students and society, so she had no choice but to have the abortion.

We suggested that she should pray to the Bodhisattva and ask Him to be in charge of this matter (zuozhu 做主). During the meditation and spiritual tour to the underworld, the maid of the spiritual palace brought the child to her. It was a 3-4 year-old boy. As soon as she looked at his face, she knew who the father was. Throughout the meditation, she was constantly crying. She also told the boy spirit that she missed him so much and promised that they will be mother and child again in the future.

The example above portrays the fetus spirit vividly: the yingling has gender, age, and most importantly: the emotions and desire to request a reciprocal relationship with the parents (i.e., a redemptive ritual). This image inevitably leads us to revisit the anthropological definition of personhood, which can be described as: “A quality thought to be constituted throughout the life course through rituals, exchanges and interactions, moral bearing, and so forth.” Abortion, as well as infanticide (buju 不舉 and m-sinn 毋生), has been practiced in China and Taiwan since early history for reasons such as inauspicious signs occurring during the pregnancy or related to the infant, managing populations and economic hardship. However, a structured abortion ritual which specifically aims to appease the fetus spirit as an outstanding spiritual category was not practiced systematically before.

Indeed, in Taiwan, there is still inconsistency and incoherence in the imagination toward yingling among religious institutions. During my interviews, not all priests agreed that life begins at the moment of conception; for example, some suggested the third month (or 49 days) since this is a reasonable duration for the embryo to mature. In addition, the priests did not share similar attitudes towards abortion; some were critical when some recognised that it is women’s decision and part of reality. Similarly, some priests claimed that, after being aborted, the fetus spirits wander in the Yang realm. Nonetheless, temples specialising in matters of the Underworld would claim that the spirits are suffering in the Underworld. As well, some priests asserted that the fetus spirit haunts the parents while some argued that the fetus spirit is excessively demonised. The ritual participants also expressed mixed feelings toward the fetus spirit. Some experienced the impact of yinglings significantly, while others were not certain.

The newly emerging construction of the personhood of yingling invites investigation of its origin. The legalisation of abortion in 1985 through the Eugenic and Health Protection Law caused an increase in the number of abortions. Economic and social changes in ideas about marriage and family size as well as patriarchal pressure may have triggered the popularisation of appeasement practices. In addition, advances in reproductive technology that allow for the visualisation of the fetus constructs a new sense of parent-child relationship. Moreover, I argue that the new belief in the personhood of the fetus developed in the context of transnational flows surrounding Taiwan involving Chinese tradition, Japanese influences, and Christian activism. Moral norms and countermeasures against infanticide and abortion emerged in premodern Buddhist and Confucian sectors in China, whereas practices used in the abortion ritual in Japan were borrowed in the 1980s. Moreover, the value of life has been highlighted through antiabortion campaigns mobilised through Christian churches by American missionaries since the 1990s. The developments in the ritual and surrounding discourses indicates the complexity of the competing powers that act as significant influences on Taiwan.

The abortion ritual, as a dynamic social praxis energised by the people, responds to social forces and evolves in its vernacular way. Nowadays the abortion ritual triggers new needs, creates new understandings of the supernatural world, and shapes new types of parent–child relationships. These ritual actions prompt significant changes within the overall culture and are therefore embedded in social realities generated at a specific time and space.

Grace Cheng-Ying Lin is a faculty member in the Department of Humanities, Philosophy and Religion of John Abbott College, Montreal, Canada. Her research interests focus on anthropology of religion, particularly Buddhist and Taoist rituals surrounding reproduction and death. This paper is part of the North American Taiwan Studies Association (NATSA) 2019 conference special issue.

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