NHA TRANG, Vietnam: Sitting cross-legged on a straw mat in the middle of the living room, Tong Phuoc Phuc sings a soothing Vietnamese lullaby. For a moment, his deep voice works magic, and the tiny room crammed with 13 babies is still.Phuc giggles like a proud papa. He’s not related to any of them, but without him, many of these children likely would have been aborted. And to Phuc, abortion is unimaginable.
The 41-year-old Catholic from the coastal town of Nha Trang has opened his door to unwed expectant mothers in a country that logs one of the world’s highest abortion rates. In 2006, there were more than 114,000 abortions at state hospitals in Ho Chi Minh City outnumbering births. Most pregnant, unmarried Vietnamese women have few options. Abortion is a welcome choice for many who simply cannot afford to care for a baby or are unwilling to risk being disowned by their families. The communist government calls premarital sex a “social evil.” Abortion, however, is legal and performed at nearly every hospital. And unlike in some Western countries where the issue is hotly contested, the practice stirs little debate here.
But shelters for women who want to keep their babies are rare. Phuc promises them food and a roof until they give birth, and then cares for the children until the mothers can afford to take them. In the past four years, he’s taken in 60 kids, with about half still living in his two houses.
“Sometimes we have 10 mothers living here … sleeping on the floor,” says Phuc, a thin man with dark, weathered skin and teeth stained brown from years of smoking. “The problem is that a lot of young people live together and have sex, but they have no knowledge about getting pregnant. So they get abortions.”
Phuc says he made a deal with God seven years ago when his wife encountered complications while in labor with their son. He vowed that if they were spared, he would find a way to help others. As his wife lay recuperating after the difficult birth, he recalls seeing many pregnant women going into the delivery room but always leaving alone.
“I was wondering, ‘where are the babies?’” he says, cradling an infant in each arm. “Then I realized they had abortions.”
Phuc, a building contractor, started saving money to buy a craggy plot of land outside town. He then began collecting unwanted fetuses from hospitals and clinics to bury in graves on the property. At first, doctors and neighbors thought he had gone mad. Even his wife questioned spending their savings to build a cemetery for aborted babies.
But he kept on, and now some 7,000 tiny plots dot the shady hillside, many marked with bright red, pink and yellow artificial roses.
“I believe these fetuses have souls,” says Phuc, who has two children of his own. “And I don’t want them to be wandering souls.”
Vietnam was ranked as having the world’s highest abortion rate in a 1999 report by the U.S.-based Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the statistics. More recent reliable data for both public and private clinics are unavailable. Aid agency Pathfinder International says abortions remain high in Vietnam but appear to be declining slightly.
Dr. Vo Thi Kim Loan has run her own clinic just outside Ho Chi Minh City since 1991. She says the number of young, unmarried women seeking quick, discreet abortions has increased with more teen girls having sex before marriage. She also still sees a steady stream of married women coming in for repeat abortions because their husbands disapprove of contraceptives.
Preference for boys is another factor. Vietnamese women with access to ultrasound sometimes terminate pregnancies after discovering they’re carrying girls in a country where couples are encouraged to have just two children.
Phuc isn’t sure why so many Vietnamese choose abortion and says more women need to understand safer forms of birth control are available.
He says word of his unusual graveyard eventually spread, and women who had undergone abortions started visiting to pray and burn incense. Phuc urged them to tell others considering the same option to talk with him first.
Phan Thi Hong Vu looks lovingly at her chubby 7 1/2-month-old baby boy sucking on a pacifier surrounded by all the other babies on Phuc’s floor. She shivers at the thought of how close she came to losing him.
“I actually went to the hospital intending to get an abortion, but I was so scared,” says Vu, who was 3 1/2 months pregnant at the time. “I decided to go home and think about it. Two weeks later, I met with Phuc.”
She moved into the 904-square-foot (84-square-meter) house soon after and remains there with seven other new or expectant mothers. They spend their days washing, feeding, burping, changing and playing with the babies all but one are under a year old. The constant chorus of crying, coughing and cooing fills the living room, which is lined with pink and blue cribs and adorned with a crucifix, the Virgin Mary and a photo of the late Pope John Paul II.
It’s a full-time operation that involves Phuc’s entire family. His older sister manages the chaos, mixing vats of strained potatoes and carrots and preparing formula for bottles, while shushing crying babies and chasing crawlers. The entrance to the single-level cement house tells the story: rows of bibs, booties, jumpers and spit rags hang drying in the sun.
It costs about US$1,800 (1,200) a month to care for all 33 babies and the women. Phuc gets donations from Catholic and Buddhist organizations and from people who have heard about his work. On a recent day, a local family dropped by with an envelope sent from their daughter in California who had read about Phuc on a Vietnamese Web site. Two years ago, he even got a letter from Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet praising him for caring for women and children scorned by society.
Health authorities say they support what he’s doing, but also keep a close eye on him to ensure everything is legitimate in a country where baby selling and child trafficking are a problem. Some people accuse Phuc of condoning premarital sex.
Phuc’s operation is not a registered orphanage, which means he cannot put any of the children up for adoption. But even if he could, he shakes his head and says his goal is to reunite each child with its mother or to raise them as his own. So far, 27 babies have gone home.
“I will continue this job until the last breath of my life,” he says. “I will encourage my children to take over to help other people who are underprivileged.”
This man saves children from abortion by adopting them! He also rescues the bodies of aborted children from clinics and buries them in a cemetery he’s built. There are 9,000 children buried there. What an amazing witness!
Postscript: An open letter of Dr. Mike Lehoang. founder of the Mai Am International, Inc.
My dear friends,
Early in 2007, my life – as well as my family’s – was altered forever. This change came in the form of an humble middle-aged man named Tong Phuoc Phuc whom we met in an underprivileged neighborhood in Nha Trang, a resort town that is eight hours from Saigon.
Mr. Phuc and his wife live in a tiny brick house, no more than 10 feet by 45 feet. They are gracious hosts to an unlikely group of guests – twelve expectant mothers and twenty-two toddlers, ages 1 to 3. Over the past three years, the Phuc’s modest dwelling has become a sanctuary for young mothers-to-be, as well as for orphans who have no other place to call home.
As we walked in, the curious children reached up their tiny arms to us, wanting to be held, played with, and loved. Together my children, my nieces, my nephews, and I all obliged, savoring the laughter that escaped their lips. When it was time to leave, the little ones’ fingers held on tight, not wanting to let go. It was in that moment that we all knew we had to do something to help these children. Mr. Phuc’s plans for them were limited: the small house was unsuited to accommodate so many, and he did not have enough resources to take care of their future needs, such as schooling and health care. His ultimate goal, he told us, was to place these children in a stable, long-term environment.
Mr. Phuc began his cause four years ago when he started collecting aborted fetuses from a local hospital and burying them in a near-by cemetery. He named each life lost and honored their memory in a ceremony. Over time, he has laid to rest over five thousand fetuses. Mr. Phuc was so affected by this cause that he invited young expectant mothers into his home who would have otherwise had abortions. After the birth, he has given the mothers the option of either keeping the babies or giving them to him. Surprisingly, fifty percent have chosen to keep their babies.
After our emotional visit, our son David was so moved that he told us he wanted to help those children, to provide a better future for them. He wanted us to build an orphanage and, after much thought, my wife and I agreed to start a fund to construct the orphanage and raise money for its long term operation. We joined hands with Sister Thanh Mai and the nuns from the Holy Cross Society (Dong Men Thanh Gia). With contributions from our family and generous friends, we were able to build the orphanage in the village of Ham Tan, thirty minutes south of Phan Thiet and three hours north of Saigon. The orphanage was completed in March of 2009 and is a two-story building with the capacity to house and feed over one hundred orphans, a dozen young expectant mothers, and several nuns. In addition to the living and dining quarters, there are also two large classrooms and a chapel.
In order to provide long term support for the orphanage, we have created a non-profit organization called “New Beginnings-Mai Am Inc.” (Mai Am means Warm Roof in Vietnamese). We want to ensure that the children will be well cared for and given a chance to grow up in a healthy, stable environment. Hopefully, they will become not only proud, but productive members of society.
I hope you will consider contributing to our cause and helping us provide these children with a warm roof over their heads, as well as a new beginning. Any contribution, small or large, will be deeply appreciated. Only thirty dollars will feed one child for a month. For $360, you can sponsor a child and provide food for an entire year! Our next goal is the purchase of the land close by. We want to buy the property to build an additional dormitory to separate the boys from the girls and to build a small clinic to provide medical care to the handicapped children and the poor peasants in the village. We estimate the project to be around $200,000. In the future, we would like to teach the children English so they can be more competitive in their lives as they will face the stigma of being orphans. We would also like to teach the young expectant mothers a marketable skill to make a decent living after giving birth. Donations are tax deductible. The New Beginnings Mai Am organization is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Our EIN is 61-1540767.
These young mothers and children need our assistance. Please join us in our efforts to continue to provide for these children. Unite with us to aid these little ones who cannot help themselves. The gift of a new beginning is life-changing for us all.
Mike Lehoang, MD