In recent months, several states have passed sweeping anti-abortion legislation—including some of the most restrictive laws since abortion became legal under the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade—in an effort to bring a legal challenge before a new generation of conservative justices who could overturn the 1973 ruling. By and large, the pro-life activism driving the effort is rooted in the religious right’s view that abortion violates the Christian prohibition on killing. While debate over the legal status of embryos and fetuses has raged in American politics for decades, a similar development in Japanese Buddhism offers an interesting contrast for how the issue of applying religious doctrine to modern medical technology has been approached against different cultural and historical backdrops.
In postwar Japan, conservative Japanese politicians and right-wing commentators bemoaned the degradation of a rapidly modernizing society, citing the soaring abortion rate as the clearest evidence of Japan’s moral decline. They argued that the immorality of women was, in part, responsible for the erosion of traditional social values. Partnering with monks of a similar mindset, they used the rhetoric of mizuko kuyo, a Japanese Buddhist ritual meant to pacify the distraught spirits of babies who have been lost either by abortion or miscarriage. The ritual itself invokes the bodhisattva Jizo, who acts as a guide in the afterlife.
Published a decade ago, Jeff Wilson’s Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America investigates mizuko kuyo and its transformations over time. He explains how the ceremony was seen in Japan as a means for women to atone for their alleged wrongdoings and to resubmit to their proper position in society. But in the late 20th-century transmission of Buddhism to the United States, mizuko kuyo took on a wholl