|Graves for aborted embryos built by Truong Ngoc Ho at a cemetery on the outskirts of Hue. — VNS Photo Phuoc Buu
by Phuoc Buu
THUA THIEN HUE (VNS)— Nestled on a hillside in central Thua Thien Hue Province, a cemetery home to 45,000 graves plays host to many stories unfamiliar to most other cemeteries.
This cemetery is not for adults. It is in fact a cemetery for aborted embryos and pre-born babies, set up in Huong Tra District's Huong Ho Commune in 1992. Each grave contains up to 35 embryos, collected from hospitals and clinics around Hue.
The cemetery has not been given a formal name, nor is it a public project. It is the result of the efforts of a group of Catholic residents, who consider aborted embryos as legitimate specimens of human life, that needed to be buried after death.
They are motorbike taxi drivers, street food vendors, house workers and farmers. Working discreetly and insisting their work not be publicised, few are aware of the group's work.
But recently, the cemetery – accidentally - has made local headlines; even prompting a wave of public support, albeit with some controversy.
Today, the cemetery is a regular pilgrimage for young mothers visiting their terminated babies, or families remembering still-born infants who didn't make it home.
Truong Ngoc Ho (not his real name) said his group did not think much of what they were doing when they started. They simply believed the embryos needed to be buried, preventing them from being bitten by animals or being discarded into landfill sites.
Ho, who is responsible for the cemetery behind his house and for burying feotuses, said:
"We've never defined what the purpose of our work was. We just had a deep sympathy for the aborted babies and wanted them to have a place to rest in peace."
Another person in the group said that as a woman, she understood the pain that girls went through when they had to terminate the life of a child, and so wanted to create a space to share that pain.
She said the cemetery was a way to help ease the pain of those girls who terminated their children, by giving them a place to think about their unborn children.
"We offer them a place to visit their unborn babies and see that their babies are resting in peace. They can pray and talk to their babies, as well."
Ho marks the date of burial on a concrete cross put on each grave, so that young mothers can identify the place where their babies are by looking for the date they completed their abortions at hospitals or health clinics.
"Members of the group collect embryos from around Hue and take them to my mother's house in the city so that they can be placed in pots. Afterwards, I take them to the cemetery for burying – on a weekly basis." he said.
Ho has been the group's biggest supporter during the past 21 years. He donated 2ha of forest land in 2009 to make a total area of 4ha to meet increasing demand.
"The 2ha land plot had 32,000 graves in 2008. So, I decided to cut the trees on my land to give more land for embryos because the demand is increasing, albeit slower than before," Ho said.
Ho is the only person in the group that that can meet with members of the public. He has worked diligently for more than twenty years for the cemetery, donating both his dedication and his property, taking nothing in return from the young mothers who visit his cemetery.
However, not all have been so receptive to his work. Many people have said his cemetery preserves pain and guilt for mothers – preventing them from moving on with their lives.
The hardship that young women face after abortion is well-documented. In society, abortions are still frowned upon for ending a life before it has the chance to begin, whilst culturally, it is a sin resulting from a more liberal sexual attitudes and activities.
According to a social scientist living in Hue who did not want to be named, most abortion cases involved young girls who opted for abortions because of unplanned pregnancies and unprotected sex.
Some had gotten pregnant after refusing to have protected sex, while others had been tricked by men who had taken advantage of their lack of awareness of safe sex practices.
Some adults decided on abortions on the basis of the child's expected gender – with many falling behind cultural norms to value boys over girls. Others had aborted embryos because career promotions, or even to hide evidence of adultery.
The minority of cases, it seemed, were due to health reasons relating to the mother or the baby, he said.
"Every man wants a virgin wife. Thus, I have to protect my daughter's future. I can't allow her to give birth to a baby which may ruin her life because the man who made her pregnant has left," said a woman in a clinic in Hue.
Bui Minh Bao, chief officer of local Department of Health, said abortion statistics in the province also included people from other provinces.
They came to Hue to have abortions at Hue Central Hospital and Hue University Hospital – both regional health care centres, he said adding that being a centre for tertiary education, Hue attracted thousands of students nationwide.
"Many young mothers visiting the cemetery were students," said Ho.
Despite what many people might assume, Ho said he doesn't blame the mothers for their abortions. He simply hopes that abortion rates will decrease.
"I promised the babies I would be devoted to this work for the rest of my life. I hold out hope that less people will have abortions in future." — VNS