“Sometimes we feel like what we do is only a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”
–Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta
On the Battlefield of the Fight for Life
“The measure of civilization, a universal and permanent measure which includes all cultures, is its relationship with life.”[i] These words of St. John Paul II help us understand the cultural reality of the Taiwanese people and confirm the commitment we religious have undertaken to work towards evangelizing all cultures, beginning with the basic principle of the protection of life.
Taiwan relies on, if I may use that expression, the most relaxed abortion law in the world. In a pagan culture, with paganism as closed-minded as it is in Taiwan, the value of life and particularly the defense of life from its beginnings are not important rights—a confirmation of what the Holy Father asserted above.
Abortion is free. The Eugenic Law for the Protection of Health, approved in 1984, legalizes abortion up to six months in any case where the mental health of the mother or of the family may be affected by the birth. It is exactly because of this that Taiwan has turned into the country with the most liberal abortion law in the world. It is legal to abort: if either of the parents have a hereditary or contagious illness or some sort of psychological problem; if any member of the family suffers from a hereditary disease; or if the doctor declares the pregnancy or the birth of the child to be a danger to the life, body, or mental health of the mother.
Here are some numbers to give you a better idea of the situation: with a population of nearly 23,000,000, every year about 500,000 babies are aborted, meaning an average of 1,369 cases per day or 57 per minute. With this statistic, Taiwan is considered one of the countries with the highest abortion rate per capita in the world. Meanwhile, the birthrate does not exceed 195,000 births per year. This latter statistic places Taiwan in an ‘important’ place: that of third place in the world for the lowest birthrate. Out of every three teenagers, two have had an abortion—and it’s not their first time either. This last fact comes from a statistical study made in 30 countries across 5 continents, focusing on adolescents and young adults from 15 to 24 years old.
Another factor, as mentioned above, is the culture. Here are some characteristics: for one thing, great value is placed on one’s exterior appearance in society. If a young woman finds herself pregnant outside of marriage, she is obligated by her family to have an abortion. As a consequence, it is very hard to find women who want to carry their pregnancy to term. In fact, there have been so few cases in these past few years that I can only think of one woman who decided to carry her child to term, calling us back two years later to thank us. Another characteristic is the preference for boys over girls. Culturally, it is believed that the man is the one who carries on the family’s name. This results in gender-selective abortions.
Let me illustrate the cultural factor a little more with one more statistic: In 2010, since it was the year of the Tiger, only 166,000 children were born. In the Taiwanese cultural, any child born during the year of the Tiger will have a more impulsive and irascible temperament. Thus, to avoid such children, the parents decide to abort.
To complete this culture of death, we must also mention the country’s economic policy, which pressures families to cut back on expenses and imposes an education system that in itself costs a lot of money. On top of all that, students are obliged to attend extra classes outside of the regular school schedule to aid their studies. This can cost 25% of the average worker’s monthly wage per child. It is often said that each child costs $X amount Taiwanese Dollars, and that one’s income can’t provide for more than one.
Nine years ago, when the sisters started this apostolate, nobody could have imagined (just as God always exceeds our expectations) what this little office would mean—not only for the Institute in Taiwan, but also for the diocese and for the whole country.
Even with the scenario described above (which we only found out about after beginning the apostolate but which would confirm why Divine Providence was “pushing” us to take action), opening a Prolife office wasn’t something that struck us as urgent. “We’re still struggling with the language,” we thought; and we didn’t have the man power for such an apostolate. It most certainly was important, and it was our intention to do something in that area at some point… we could sense the need, but we wanted to proceed little by little.
But like we said above: God infinitely surpasses our meager limits. He pushes us to do what we would only choose to do after reflecting for a long time and “considering it thoroughly.” So He sent the vocations as well as the people prepared to do it. Very soon after, Sr. Maria del Desierto arrived, a sister from Hong Kong who spoke Mandarin very well and who also had the skills for such an apostolate. So, timidly, we decided to begin to do something. Still, we did so with the intention of not outdoing ourselves. And, since a good part of the work would be translating the educational literature into Chinese, we intended to take advantage of any work that others might have already done. So it was that we set out to discover if somewhere in Taiwan there existed any reference to the prolife movement. To our surprise, we only found two initiatives: one Jesuit priest who had his own organization in the north, and the Neo-catechumen movement in the south, which was doing some praiseworthy work with the parish office for the family. Now that the real situation was out in the open, we could tell God was showing us and confirming how urgent it was that we act. Something had to be done.
The work to be done was much more than what we had imagined and it required that we rely on many different means. With this in mind, we decided to offer to unite forces with the diocese and work together.
So the sisters went to visit Monsignor Lee (Bishop of Hsinchu, recently arrived to the diocese) to present their proposition. Here was another surprise—to remind you of what was said earlier: God always exceeds our limited prospects—but at that time he had been considering the need for an office of pastoral work with families and was concerned because he could find no one to do it. It even came to the point of his dreaming about this problem. He mentioned that, in the more than 50 years that the diocese had existed, no one had ever opened a prolife office. He immediately gave us the go ahead, offering all that he could on his part. He saw that this was a clear affirmation of Divine Providence in response to his prayers, but he also warned us that it would not be easy for many reasons, the first and foremost being the culture, as mentioned previously.
Sr. Maria del Desierto, with the help of some of the sisters of the community, then began to give talks in parishes and schools. On July 31, 2008, the Prolife Office was officially opened on a floor in our convent, subsidized by the diocese. At the suggestion of the sisters, the office took St. Gianna Beretta Molla (聖吉安娜維護生命中心) as patroness.
From the beginning, Monsignor encouraged us to not give up, but to keep going forward in spite of any difficulties we might encounter. He repeatedly told us: “Even if only one person comes to the talk…if you help to change his mindset, it is worth all the effort for that person alone.” He also advised us to not only work in prevention of the problem (with formative talks in the parishes, schools, or at the prolife office itself) but also to help those women in difficult situations.
As Monsignor anticipated, it certainly has not been, nor is it now, easy.
Up until now, the work has been mainly focused on forming consciences so as to prevent this evil. Currently, a group of volunteers have been helping Sr. Maria del Desierto; to this group has been added Mother Maria Compassionis, who has just finished her Mandarin studies and has had previous experience in prolife work in the USA. During these past years, we have given talks at secondary schools, universities and parishes, as well as at the prolife headquarters itself. These talks have been focused on communicating the gravity of abortion while at the same time also seeking to encourage young people to live out a life of chastity.
There’s no need to imagine that a huge number of people are attending the talks; still, even though they are few, it is certain that at some point they will go out and bear fruit, and people will begin to change their mindset.
In spite of this lack of participation, the office has had an important influence not only on the national level but also on the international level. For example, this year we were able to bring over to Taiwan the Symposium of “Human Life International”[ii] in Asia. This, in turn, was prepared together with another Congress which was held last year on a national level and that had the distinctive feature of being the first of its kind in the country. The Symposium of Human Life International will make its headquarters in the diocese of Hsinchu from the 26th to the 30th of this month. We’ll write about this later in another chronicle.
Thanks to this, other groups with the same goal have been started in other dioceses. Last May, Sr. Maria del Desierto was invited to speak to the seminarians of the Regional Seminary of Taipei, which is the seminary where the future priests for all of Taiwan are formed.
At the sisters’ suggestion, March 25th was declared on a diocesan level as the Day for the Unborn, with our office placed in charge of the day’s events.
Going back to the subtitle of this chronicle, we find Mother Teresa’s quote to be very applicable. At times, we can feel like what we do is only a drop in the giant ocean—whether because of the sheer amount of work to be done, or because of the huge disproportion between the field to be worked and the human means available, or because of the difficulties to be overcome, or even because of the lack of perceptible fruits. But if we didn’t do the work, if we left everything just as it is because we didn’t see a difference—or, said in another way, if we stayed silent in front of the atrocities committed in killing the innocent—if we didn’t speak for these little ones, the ocean would be less without that drop; it would be less without the “great-little” contribution that the Institute is giving through the sisters at Zhongli. “May the ranks of the defenders of life steadily increase! Do not lose heart! This is a great mission entrusted to you by Providence. May God from whom every life takes its origin bless you.”[iii]
United in prayer,
[i] Homily of St. John Paul II at the Shrine of St. Joseph, Kalisz (Poland). 4 June 1997.
[ii] Human Life International is a prolife Catholic activist organization in the USA. It was founded in 1981 by Fr. Paul Marx (1920-2010) in Virginia. It is the largest prolife organization in the world, having daughter organizations in more than 80 countries. It works together with secular organizations as well as with other denominations and religions. Its mission is to form and organize leaders for prolife work.
[iii] Homily of St. John Paul II at the Shrine of St. Joseph, Kalisz (Poland). 4 June 1997.