Many women and couples in Japan who have terminated a pregnancy choose to honor the soul of the child through a practice called mizuko jizo. In this ritual the parents purchase a doll, adorn it and enshrine it in a temple, where it is cared for by priests.
On this recent thirty-fifth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, pro-choice activists are calling for a new approach to the issue.
Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Free Choice, and Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, wrote in an OpEd article in The Los Angeles Times: “Our vigorous defense of the right to choose needs to be accompanied by greater openness regarding the real conflict between life and choice, between rights and responsibility. It is time for a serious reassessment of how to think about abortion in a world that is radically changed from 1973.”
Kissling and Michelman acknowledge that the anti-choice movement has made great inroads into the consciousness of America, which now has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the developed world. Part of the success of the anti-abortion message comes down to advances in technology, they say. The ubiquitous ultrasound images of fetuses and the survival of premature babies at earlier and earlier stages has established the unborn as a category of persons with rights in the minds of many people.
As the specter of back alley abortions recedes and women no longer die by the thousands from botched abortions, the old arguments about a woman’s life and her right to autonomy over her own body are holding less sway. Kissling and Michelman warn: “If pro-choice values are to regain the moral high ground, genuine discussion about these challenges needs to take place within the movement.”
The moral arguments about abortion rarely consider the physical limits of the planet, but if they did, and if abortion were put into the context of the long history of human attempts to avoid starvation by regulating population growth, we might come to a different conclusion about what “pro-life” really means.
An increased awareness of the fetus and its rights is not the only change in the moral landscape of reproduction since 1973. The other change that must be acknowledged is that we have far exceeded the capacity of the planet to sustain our numbers, and that human life and civilization are now deeply threatened by resource depletion, toxic pollution and climate catastrophe. Already, shortages of food, fuel and water are making it difficult to meet the basic needs of the 6.5 billion people on the planet and no one has any idea how we will feed the 9.1 billion people projected to be here by 2050.
The new moral landscape that Kissling and Michelman refer to was covered in an article by Stephanie Simon, January 23, 2008, on the growing youth movement against abortion.
Simon reports on a group of eighth-graders who have “spiritually adopted” an unknown fetus, giving it a name and praying that its mother will not abort it. Another group of teenagers see themselves as survivors of abortion. One young woman from a family of six children thinks about her classmates who come from small families and says: “I look at my friends and I wonder, ‘Where are your siblings?'”
This caring attitude of concern is being nourished by some religious leaders who are encouraging teens to take it beyond the abortion issue and volunteer with programs for AIDS sufferers and the homeless.
It is significant that young people are being recruited to the pro-life side by appealing to their feelings of loving kindness for what they are told are victims of abortion. You can say that they are being manipulated into this position by concerted religious propaganda, and there’s a lot of truth to that, but there is a reason why young people are ripe for this. We live in a world where almost ten million children under age five die every year from preventable causes. In our world, five million people were killed in the Congo over the last decade and no one in the developed world took any notice. People all over the planet are suffering, and no one is coming to their aid. It’s an uncaring world, and so the impulse to do something, to reach out, help and save some of these victims is very strong.
It is also interesting that some of these children are identifying themselves as survivors of abortion. They look around and see missing brothers and sisters and don’t see any reason why a pregnant woman would abort a child and deny it a place in the family. What they don’t see is that most women who seek abortions do so in order to conserve resources for children they already have.
But, setting aside for a moment the many completely valid reasons women have for seeking an abortion, it is important to acknowledge that every one of us is a survivor of abortion. Between 20 and 50 percent of all pregnancies end in a natural abortion where the woman’s body for whatever reason – whether it is a genetically malformed embryo or some environmental or even social stress – is triggered to abort. This happens all the time and it is completely natural.
Everyone who is born is a survivor of natural abortion. And everyone who celebrates a first birthday is a survivor of infant mortality. Throughout history and pre-history in cultures across the face of Planet Earth, there has always been a large amount of infant mortality. Babies often died within the first month, year or several years after birth because of harsh environmental conditions, and this is the way it has been for human beings until very recently.
Spontaneous abortion helps us see that we are not actually separate from our environment, whether it is the environment of the womb or the environment of the planet. With each conception of a being, the conception is only the beginning. We are all very much dependent on the environment, and no one more so than a tiny embryo or fetus in its mother’s womb. The universe does not guarantee a right to life.
Abortion As a Sacrament
To make moral judgments about abortion, it is not enough to consider how we live today. We have to consider how we will live tomorrow on a resource-depleted and climate-compromised planet. To grasp the future, it will also help to have a better understanding of our past as a species.
For the first 100,000 years of our existence, the human population consisted of a couple of million hunter-gatherers scattered across the planet. Studies of modern hunter-gatherers, like the Kalahari San, show that women had long intervals of four to five years between births and produced an average of four children each. Only two children typically survived to reproduce themselves, leading to a stable population.
Long birth intervals were the key to population control. Women who are very lean and only getting just enough to eat, stop having periods when a nursing baby draws down their reserves, and so they remain infertile for the period of nursing. This is nature’s birth control. If for some reason a woman did become pregnant when her child was still only a year or two years old, this presented a huge problem because as a nomadic hunter-gatherer she could not carry two children and nurse two children at once. It would kill her, and so very often when that happened, people throughout history let a newborn die. They might expose it on a hillside or they might smother it as it was being born. It was very sad, but something that had to be done because there was no way that the woman and her other child would survive.
Hunter-gatherers were not the only people who had to take steps to control population. Island cultures have long faced the absolute resource limits that the whole world is facing today. For this reason, the Japanese have a long history of using abortion to control family size. Historically, Japan had no reliable contraceptive methods and so abortion was the only alternative to infanticide.
Although it is condoned, abortion is not treated casually by traditional Japanese culture. The life of the aborted embryo or fetus is honored through a ritual practice called mizuko jizo. Mizuko means “child of the water” and is used to refer to the soul of a child who has been returned to the gods. Jizo is the name of the Buddhist god who protects and guides that soul on its journey to another world. The parents purchase a doll, adorn it and enshrine it in a temple, where it is cared for by priests.
Abortion is regarded as the parents deciding to return a child to the gods, sending a child to a temporary place until such time that it is right for the child to come into this world, either into the same family or another one. The child is returned because the parents, at that time, would be unable to provide enough love, money or attention to this child without it being to the detriment of their present family. Practicing mizuko jizo allows the parents to provide a certain amount of attention to the child, who is seen as a member of their family, to apologize to the child and to ask for forgiveness from the child for being unable to bring it up.
Honoring the life of the embryo or fetus transforms abortion from a sin to a sacrament. To understand that a tiny embryo must sometimes be sacrificed for the greater good of the family or the human species as a whole is the moral high ground that we stand on today.
This doesn’t mean that any woman should ever be forced to abort a child against her will, but it does mean that women need to be free to choose, because history has shown that when women have the freedom to choose, by and large they will not raise more children than they can take care of, and ultimately, that means that they will not raise more children than the planet can support. The reason we have lost this understanding today is because of a long period of anti-woman propaganda.
With the human species, and actually throughout the animal kingdom, it’s an interesting fact of evolution that the sexes, male and female, don’t always have exactly the same interests. There is one extreme example from the animal world that illustrates this dilemma. The anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy studied the hanuman langur monkeys of India and discovered a very disturbing result of their social patterns. The females travel in groups and raise their babies together, while the males battle for control of the female harems. When a new male establishes dominance, he will try to kill as many of the young infants as he can so he can mate with the females as soon as possible.
Once her baby is gone, a female immediately comes into heat and copulates with the male who killed her child. Obviously, this may have some benefits to the males. In a brutally competitive environment, they get a chance to see their own babies be born and reared, but for the females, this is nothing but bad news. It takes a tremendous amount of physical investment for a female to carry and raise a baby. All of her energy investment is lost when a new male comes along, but she really has no other choice but to submit.
In human history, especially in the deeper past, from what we can tell, there wasn’t anything like this; in fact, there is plenty of evidence that human females were very successful in organizing themselves in coalitions of solidarity that regulated society to their benefit. Anthropologist Chris Knight and others have shown that women synchronized menstrual periods to regulate sexual access to females and motivate males to provide meat from the hunt.
Male cooperation and provisioning was critically important for human women because our babies are very helpless, and it requires a huge, huge investment to raise a baby. To regularly lose a baby and have to start over again would not have worked at all for our species. Human females throughout the hunter-gatherer period were very successful in organizing the males to provide for them and in minimizing violence against the females.
But something new happened with the advent of agriculture: people became sedentary. The whole equation around energy and reproduction changed, and it became possible, with stored agricultural produce, to have more babies at shorter birth intervals because they didn’t have to be carried around. Suddenly there was massive population growth in the human species. This population growth led to an increase in friction between groups of people and ultimately led to war. Prior to the end of the last Ice Age, there was not much evidence of warfare, but when the ice melted, agriculture took hold, and as archeologist Mary Settegast documents in her book, “Plato Prehistorian,” stone arrowheads specialized for war proliferated across Europe and the Near East.
As conflict increased, the males started to gain more power in human social groups as defenders of the clan and tribe, and eventually, what happened was something very new. The males began to assert their control over female reproduction. This was not something that had happened before with the human species, and the first sign we see of this is in the agricultural civilizations of the ancient Near East. The world’s first anti-abortion law is found in the Middle Assyrian law code, as discussed by the historian Gerda Lerner in her book “The Creation of Patriarchy.” The law required a woman who obtained an abortion to be killed by a stake driven through her heart. It was the harshest punishment the society had.
The curious thing is that this was not a pro-life law code. It was about male control over females. Men claimed for themselves the prerogative to kill any young infants that they wanted to or to sell their children or their wives into slavery. In particular, the new law allowed them to choose to raise more males who could fight as soldiers in armies. This initiation of male reproductive choice in the ancient agricultural civilizations of the Bronze Age is what set patriarchy on its current trajectory of empire, war and the ultimate conquest of the Earth itself that is killing our planet.
It’s the remnant of this system that we see today in the extreme fundamentalist theologies that want to remove not only abortion from a woman’s options, but birth control as well. It’s a little-known fact that the leaders of today’s pro-life movement are also very strongly against birth control, and they have a campaign they call the Quiver Full movement that is urging Christian woman, especially white Christian women, to have as many babies as they possibly can. The babies are a “quiver full of arrows” for the Army of God. They even connect this with the immigration debate, saying that the reason why we have so many immigrants is because white, native-born American women are not breeding enough.
Now the genocidal implications of this are clear, but there is also the fact that large families are really completely unnatural for human beings. The natural hunter-gatherers rarely had more than five children and rarely more than two or three who lived to reproduce. So, the idea of a woman having seven or ten or more children is completely unnatural. It’s certainly not good for a woman’s body to go through that many pregnancies, and it’s completely an artifact of patriarchy, male dominance and attempts to control female reproduction.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was an American labor radical and an early proponent of family planning who criticized this system back before 1920. She said: “The large family system rivets the chains of slavery upon labor more securely. It crushes the parents, starves the children, and provides cheap fodder for machines and cannons.”
Population is projected to rise to nine billion by 2050, but as recently as 1929, when my parents were born, there were only about two billion people on the planet. That’s exactly the number that our best scientists say we can support on this planet with a comfortable lifestyle, not a poor scrabbling starvation lifestyle, living on a dollar a day – the way the majority of people on this planet live today – but a comfortable lifestyle. If we want to meet all the goals for development of human society, nine billion people are too many for that to happen. The ecological limits of the planet say that, and there’s really nothing we can do about it.
That doesn’t mean that we have to do anything violent or drastic or genocidal or inhumane, but we do need to think about a social and economic system that will move us to that point as quickly as possible, and that system involves complete reproductive freedom and comprehensive health care for all women. We must trust women to make the reproductive decisions that are best for them and the planet.
As a way to focus on the long-term goal of reducing human population to two billion people, families – that is, extended families – could start by looking at how many members were in their family in 1929 or 1930. Sisters and brothers and cousins who were less enthusiastic about having children could, in effect, assign their quota of children to sisters and brothers and cousins who might want to have bigger families. A family of three or four children will be a healthy choice for some. Families of one and two children should be celebrated and encouraged, as well as families of no children or adopted children. More and more women and couples today are choosing to remain childless. A survey in 1995 found that 6.6 percent of women in 1995 declared themselves voluntarily childless, up from 2.4 percent in 1982.
Young people today may find it sad that they come from a small family with few or no siblings, but in a way that is a blessing too. For too long, human society has been fractured into tribes and clans of genetically related people. Today we recognize more and more that we are all part of one human family. We need to look around us and adopt our brothers and sisters from the ranks of our neighbors and friends.
At the end of the day, the most fundamental issue is growth. We live in a culture and an economic system that promotes growth as the ultimate and greatest good. On a finite planet, this amounts to suicide. Growth was good for a certain time. At the beginning of the Industrial Age, it was good to grow our capacity, but with oil – the prime mover of that Industrial Age – running out and also causing grave life-threatening, species-threatening, world-threatening problems of global warming and toxic pollution, growth is no longer good, especially growth in the quantity of goods and the quantity of people.
If we want to meet our goals for the development of human culture and the increase of well-being, the first prerequisite is that we change our attitude about the growth of human population. Most crucially today, a different attitude about abortion may be the key to opening our minds and hearts to the new reality of a contracting human population on a shrinking planet.
Kelpie Wilson is Truthout’s environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of “Primal Tears,” an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of “Darwin’s Radio,” says: “‘Primal Tears’ is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family. Read Leslie Thatcher’s review of Kelpie Wilson’s novel “Primal Tears.”