Buddhism and Abortion Links
Maintained by J. Hughes, Changesurfer Consulting
Buddhist Peace Fellowship The leading organization of Buddhist peace and justice activists.
Tricycle The leading American Buddhist magazine. Often addresses bioethical issues from an pan-Buddhist perspective.
Beginnings and Endings An exegetical essay by me on Buddhist social ethics.
"Prolife, Prochoice: Buddhism and Reproductive Ethics," by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, in Feminism and Nonviolence, Fall 1998
"Abortion in Japan: Pro-Choice Views", Margaret Sykes
"Rethinking the Practice of Mizuko Kuyo in Contemporary Japan: Interviews with Practitioners at a Buddhist Temple in Tokyo", by Elaine Martin
in Buddhism and Abortion. Editor: Damien Keown. 1998.
by James Hughes
I once believed it important to determine the “Buddhist view” on many social and political questions. Today I'm much more circumspect. Buddhist texts offer few coherent views outside of the core doctrinal elements. Consequently, Buddhists, to an even greater degree than most religionists, are required to address contemporary problems in the spirit of their teachings, rather than according to the letter of their law.
In the case of
abortion, classical Buddhist texts, from the Pali canon through the
Mahayana sutras, offer no specific guidance. Even if there was a specific,
classical Buddhist text addressing the moral status of the fetus and the
act of abortion, it would not be consistent with “Buddhism” to accept this
teaching uncritically. Buddhism encodes with its teachings a reflexive,
dynamic, self-critical element, beginning with the Kalama Sutra, which encourages
Buddhists not to simply follow scriptures, but to continually adapt the
Dharma to new audiences.
Consequently, a Buddhist approach to abortion has more to do with approaching the issue with a characteristic set of concerns, and in dialogue with a vast body of texts and teachers. It therefore comes as little surprise that most Western and Japanese Buddhists come away believing in the permissibility of abortion, while many other Buddhists believe abortion to be murder. In this essay I would like to sketch some of the reasons why most Western Buddhists accept abortion as an unfortunate but necessary part of women's reproductive health care.
First, it is important
to note that Buddhism, unlike many other religions, does not hold that
humans have a responsibility to procreate, and forbids the consecration of
marriage or birth by Buddhist monks and nuns. The religions most opposed
to abortion, notably Catholicism, believe that sex is for procreation, and
that procreation is a duty and gift from God. In these theistic
traditions, an abortion is an usurpation of God's will.
In Buddhism however,
the monastic life is of a higher order than the householder life. Unlike
the pro-procreative religions, in Buddhism masturbation and homosexuality
were seen as morally equivalent to heterosexuality. One entire book of
the Pali canon, the Therigatha,
is devoted to the description of the misfortunes of maidens, married women
and mothers, and the joyous liberation they discovered in the nuns” order.
This radical indifference to family life was one of the principal sources
of Confucian hostility to Buddhism in China. The late Trevor
Ling pointed out that
the Sinhalese embrace of contraception and abortion was so enthusiastic in
the 1960s, compared to Sri Lanka”s Muslims, Catholics and Hindus, that
racialist monks began to argue, with little success, that Buddhists had an
obligation to “race-religion-nation” to reproduce.
In itself, a
denigration of sexuality and reproduction does not lead to the condoning
of abortion, and these attitudes do not explain Western Buddhists” views
on abortion. On the contrary, Western Buddhists have been drawn to the
strains of Buddhism more tolerant of sexuality, principally Japanese
Buddhism and Tibetan Tantra. Even Western
Theravadan communities tend to de-emphasize anti-carnality.
Of course, in Asia and
in Asian Buddhist immigrant communities in the West, monks often do
officiate in marriages and birth blessings, and Buddhism has developed a
“pro-family” lay theology. In these communities the sexual mores are not
that different from Christianity. Nonetheless, the core images and ethos
of Buddhism do not sacralize family and reproduction, and this in itself
is probably part of the attraction for Western counterculture Buddhists,
and part of the explanation of our attitudes towards abortion.
Buddhist Ethics of
Buddhists in Asia and
in the West have adopted many different moral logics. All of these logics
can be used to argue both for and against the permissibility of abortion.
Some are more consistent with the textual and historical record of
Buddhism, but authentic Buddhist ethicists could hold any of these
For instance, the most simple-minded approach to morality is the letter of the law, and one of the top five precepts of the Buddhist is not to kill. Asserts one American Theravadan Buddhist:
Abortion is the intentional taking of human life, an extremely bad and unwholesome act which is not to be done. For the devout, traditional Buddhist, that is the end of the matter.
Stott, the British student of Tibetan Buddhism asserts:
The performance of abortion or fatality-causing experiments on the unborn child constitute the taking of life, just as surely as the taking of life at any other point in the continuum of conception to death...
While it may sound like sophistry,
the question that this precept leaves unanswered is whether an embryo or
fetus is alive. While there was a minority tradition in classical Hindu
embryology that held that incarnation does not occur till as late as the
seventh month, most Buddhist
commentators have adopted classical Hindu teachings that the
transmigration of consciousness occurs at conception, and therefore that
all abortion incurs the karmic burden of killing. Before modern
embryology, however, in both Buddhist countries and the West, ideas about
conception were scientifically inaccurate, and often associated the
beginning of life with events in the third or fourth month of pregnancy.
The medieval descriptions of the incarnation of the skandhas in the fetal body do not
discuss the fusing of sperm and egg, the growth of a central nervous
system and so on. Therefore, not
only do their writings lack canonical weight, but they lack convincing
Another problem in
early Buddhists” embryology is their assumption that the transmigration of
consciousness is sudden rather than gradual. Based on the findings of
modern neuro-embryology, Buddhists today might maintain that the fetus
does not fully embody all five skandhas (the “aggregates”, or
factors of individuality) and the illusion of personhood until after
birth. Gradual embodiment of personhood is the argument developed by most
Western ethicists to defend abortion. If the fetus is
not yet a fully embodied person, then the karmic consequences of abortion
would be even less than the killing of animals, which Buddhism clearly
teaches do have moral status. This neurological interpretation of the skandhas may be more consistent
with Western Buddhism, which often sees the doctrine of rebirth as
peripheral or interprets rebirth metaphorically rather than literally.
Another popular, and
probably the dominant, interpretation of Buddhist ethics in the West is
utilitarian; that the Buddhist
should seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Under a
utilitarian ethics, a particular abortion, and legal abortion in general,
can be ethical so long as the suffering of all beings is lessened. The
factors that a utilitarian Buddhist would take into account are the
relative amounts of suffering experienced by mothers of unwanted children
versus women who have abortions; the suffering of unwanted children versus
the “suffering” experienced by a fetus during abortion; the suffering of
societies that permit abortion, versus the suffering of societies that
don't. Utilitarian Buddhists would consider abortions more moral if the
child will be disabled, or lead a painful, unhappy life for some other
reason such as poverty; if the mother's life or health is endangered; and
if the society or world is threatened by over-population or famine. In a
consequentialist, utilitarian ethics, abortion may be ethical in some
cases and not others, and for some societies and not others.
As critics are quick to point out, utilitarianism can legitimate many repugnant actions, murder among them, and most utilitarians add two modifications to address this “yuck factor”: general rules of thumb and a hierarchy of happiness. Since the estimation of the consequences of every action is impossible, most utilitarians accept general principles that will lead to greater happiness in the long run, among them freedom of speech, “a right to life,” and so on. For these rule utilitarians, the abortion question returns to whether a fetus is a moral person with a right to life, or more precisely, whether suffering will be less if we treat fetuses as moral persons. Even if the fetus is not a person, permitting abortion may create a cognitive slippery slope to the murder of infants, and then mentally disabled children, and then adults. On the other hand, if clear and defensible distinctions can be made between fetuses and other human life, then it makes more sense to have two separate rules to apply to them.
This clear, defensible
line is derived, I believe, from the second utilitarian caveat, the
hierarchy of pleasures. This refinement of utilitarianism was articulated
by John Stuart Mill in reaction to Bentham's version of utilitarianism
which held that a life spent in an opiated stupor was just as moral as a
life spent in creative endeavor. Instead, Mill posited the very Buddhist
idea that there were higher states of mind which should be factored into
any utilitarian calculus as more important than simple pleasures. To the
extent that the fetal nervous system exists at all, its “sufferings” and
“pleasures” are clearly of a rudimentary order compared to those of the
pregnant woman. In other words, the suffering experienced by a
self-conscious child when murdered is qualitatively different from that
experienced by an infant when aborted, and thus the first can and should
be forbidden, while the latter may be acceptable. In reference to
the slippery slope argument, LaFleur notes:
The Japanese history of abortion offers an example of moral practices going the other way. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Japanese practiced birth control almost entirely through infanticide, when there was no other real option. In the twentieth century, the Japanese have virtually eliminated infanticide, substituting it with abortion. Now, more and more, abortion is being supplanted by contraception.
Within both modern Buddhist ethics and Western bioethics the “sentience” of a being is considered in evaluating the morality of ending it's life; not all life is equal and therefore not all killing is equal. Most Western bioethicists believe that human beings and animals take on ethical significance, a “right to life,” to the extent that they are “persons.” Some Western ethicists would set a standard which would exclude almost all animals, newborns, and the severely retarded or demented. When they specify which elements of sentience and neurological integrity create the illusion of personhood, Western bioethicists begin to sound remarkably Buddhistic: “the awareness of the difference between self and other; the ability to be conscious of oneself over time; the ability to engage in purposive actions”.
Buddhist psychological analysis is consistent with an ethical distinction between three kinds of beings: those that do not feel pain, those that feel pain, and those with individuated consciousness, i.e. “persons.” The insensate are considered by almost all Western philosophers, except the “deep ecologists,” some of whom are also Buddhists, and the Catholics, to be morally inconsequential. The deep ecologists would extend a right to life to viruses, plants and eco-systems, while the Catholics would extend it to the embryo.
The significance of pain is more universally recognized, leading to the establishment of organizations and laws protecting animals from unnecessary cruelty as domestic pets or in research. Similarly, pediatricians have become increasingly sensitive to the sensitivities of infants receiving shots or circumcision. Buddhism and bioethics would clearly argue for respecting the extent to which the fetus is sensate in the carrying out of abortion, though the end is obviously quick.
The moral significance
of murder, however, comes with the development of the illusion of self
some time after birth. A Buddhist ethics that tied the significance of
killing to the sentience of the being would, in turn, be consistent with
laws such as the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, and the laws
of many European nations, which allow unrestricted abortion in the first
trimester of a pregnancy and more restricted abortion rights in latter
stages of pregnancy.
A third ethical logic, and the one argued for by Damien Keown, is a virtue-ethics interpretation of Buddhism. Virtue-oriented Buddhists view the intentions and psychological state of the actor as determining the morality, and karmic consequences, of an act. In this case the mental attitude and motivations of the pregnant woman and her collaborators would determine the ethics of an abortion.
Along this line, Tworkov argues that the karmic skillfulness of an abortion is related to whether the woman became pregnant and made her decision to abort with serious mindfulness. From this perspective, aborting a fetus conceived without an effort at contraception or without serious moral reflection would be more karmically significant, in fact a breaking of the precept against sexual misconduct, than an abortion necessitated in spite of contraception, and undertaken without moral reflection. Tworkov argues that while hardening the heart against fetal life may appear to make the abortion choice easier, in the long run it is important to keep an open heart to the painfulness of the choice. Similarly, in her description of an abortion after she began practicing Zen Buddhism, Margot Milliken says:
A wise friend encouraged me to love this new being, accept it for what it was, send it loving thoughts, and if I decided to have the abortion, to also wish the being a peaceful journey. The other advice was to send myself healing and loving thoughts, and to be completely accepting of the many reactions and feelings I was experiencing. Finally I reached a point of balance and understanding. I had the abortion, and now, four years later, I still have questions. My questions are not about whether I did the right thing; I”m sure I did.
In fact, I believe
that most Western Buddhists employ both utilitarian and virtue ethics,
in the paradoxical unity of
compassion and wisdom. On the one hand, our personal karmic clarity is
most related to our cultivation of compassionate intention, but on the
other hand we also need to develop penetrating insight into the most
effective means to the ends. We do not believe that the person who helps
others without any intention of doing so to have accrued merit, while we
look upon the person who causes others suffering with the best intentions
a hapless fool. Similarly, in approaching the abortion decision, both the
mindset of the actors and the utilitarian consequences are important.
between the personal karmic consequences of abortion, and the general
social consequences, are yet another cause of Western Buddhists tolerance
toward abortion. While many Buddhists feel conflict about the moral status
of the act for themselves, they fear dire consequences for women and
society if abortion were to be re-criminalized. These concerns are in line
with those of liberal democracy, but they are also unwittingly in line
with a Buddhist traditional of a liberal state.
Western Buddhists are only slowly becoming aware of the social and political ethics of the Buddhist canon. The early Pali canon's image of traditional monarchs was of arrogant egotists pursuing imperialistic, unjust policies, guided solely by greed, hatred and ignorance. When Siddhartha Gautama was born it was predicted that he would either be a world-conqueror or a world-saviour, in line with the Great Man mythos. Though his father tried to steer him toward conquest of the world, Siddhartha conquered himself instead. The symbol of secular power was the wheel of the war chariot, “the wheel of power,” but the symbol of the Buddha's awakening was “the wheel of Truth” (dharmachakra) of which he was the “wheel-turner” (chakravartin).
found that radical disjuncture between dharma and power untenable, and a
concept of the righteous king developed. If the king could be converted
and brought under the sway of the Sangha, he could be taught to rule with
compassion, selflessness and wisdom. Such a qualitatively transformed
monarch was called a dharmaraja, or dharma-king. By subordinating himself to the
way of truth, the dharmaraja
allows the dharmachakra to turn
the wheel of power. A dharmaraja, as portrayed most significantly in the
The Lion Roar of the Wheel-Turning
Monarch Sutra, provides for all the people and animals of the realm,
listens to the counsel of the wise, controls his passions, and most
importantly, makes sure that there is no poverty in his kingdom. The first
Buddhist emperor, Asoka, attempted to fulfill these obligations of
righteous governance by setting out edicts on stone posts throughout
India, proclaiming social welfare measures, amnesty for sacrificial
animals and encouragement for lay people to practice meditation.
While the dharmaraja/Asoka tradition has inspired many Buddhists to take an active role as a moral force in governance, this model is also one of tolerance. The dharmaraja texts and Asoka himself were tolerant and respectful of non-Buddhist religious groups. The Vajjian Sutra suggests in fact that the support and free movement of religious mendicants of all kinds is a precondition for social health. Internally, the Buddhist order was not to establish a “true” faith, but to simply to schism when major disagreements developed.
Asian Buddhists have often shown a less tolerant side when Buddhism was made the state religion, Western Buddhists have evinced no interest in evangelism or the institutionalization of Buddhist moral edicts as state policy. In other words, the Western liberal moral stance that “I personally disagree with abortion, but I believe it should be legal,” is a common stance among Western Buddhists as well, and is consistent with the general moral tolerance of Buddhist governance. Again in the words of Margot Milliken:
Given the present political and social climate, we are in danger of losing the legal right to choose abortion. While I do not believe abortion is something that should be legislated against, I do feel it is an option that should not be taken lightly. Even if it seems that the best choice is to terminate a pregnancy, we must acknowledge we are ending a potential life. This seems more honest than acting as if our “pro-choice” stance does not involve taking life, even though we may assume that that life is not fully realized, conscious or developed.
And in a pamphlet from
the Japanese-American Buddhist Churches of America:
It is the woman carrying the fetus, and no one else, who must in the end make this most difficult decision and live with it for the rest of her life. As Buddhists, we can only encourage her to make a decision that is both thoughtful and compassionate.
This stance has its
limits. Few Buddhists would say
“I”m personally opposed to slavery and torture, but I think they
should be legal.” That many Buddhists are politically tolerant of abortion
despite personal reservations suggests their recognition that their
discomfort with abortion is not a fundamental moral objection, as with
slavery or torture, but a personal and emotional one. In most Buddhist
societies the occupation of butcher is considered unclean, but no Buddhist
society has ever imprisoned or executed butchers. In Buddhist law as well
as ethics, abortion is more of the status of killing animals, a matter of
personal karmic consequences not state-imposed punishment.
It is certainly
possible for a Buddhist to legitimate authoritarian and non-democratic
forms of government, and many have, especially in the 20th century in
reaction to, and in support of, communism. In the West, however, this
Buddhist spirit of tolerance has entered into dialogue with the liberal
democratic tradition to develop an model of enlightened citizenship in
some Buddhist groups. The liberal democratic model of citizenship,
consistent with Buddhism, implies that the citizen's of a society will
develop the greater wisdom and insight when they have the freedom to make
What happens to the consciousness of a baby that is aborted, or dies very young? What can the parents do to help the baby? Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche explained:
The consciousness of those who die before birth, at birth, or in infancy will travel once again through the bardo states, and take on another existence. The same meritorious practices and actions can be done for them as are usually performed for the dead: the purification practice and mantra recitation of Vajrasattva, offering of lights, purification of the ashes, and so on.
In the case of an abortion, in addition to these usual practices, if the parents feel remorse they can help by acknowledging it, asking for forgiveness, and performing ardently the purification practice of Vajrasattva. They can also offer lights, and save lives, or help others, or sponsor some humanitarian or spiritual project, dedicating it to the well-being and future enlightenment of the baby's consciousness.
Rinpoche's recent and welcome suggestion, Japan is apparently the only
society in the world that has developed a ritual, the mizuko kuyo, for the blessing of the aborted
fetuses spirit, and the expiation of the guilt of the reluctant parents.
The mizuko kuyo is performed by Buddhist priests, who then place a small
statue, a jizo, in the Buddhist cemetery to represent these good
wishes. William La Fleur is thus far the
principal interpolator of this practice to the West, and he suggests that
the practice may be a model for a Western moral approach to abortion.
Robert Aitken Roshi, a
successor of the Japanese Zen teacher Yasutani Roshi, took up this challenge in his
Hawaiian Zen community, the Diamond Sangha. Adapting and translating the
mizuko kuyo ceremony, the Diamond Sangha uses the following ceremony:
The Diamond Sangha Ceremony on the Death of an Unborn Child
1. Three full bows
2. The Three Refuges
3. Enmei Jikku Kannon Gyo or other short sutra in Japanese or English
We gather today to express our love and support for (names of parents) and to say farewell to a child unborn, a bit of being we have named (name of child), who appeared just as we all do, from the undifferentiated mind, and who passed away after a few moments of flickering life, just as we all do.
In our culture, we place great emphasis upon maintaining life, but truly death is not a fundamental matter, but an incident, another wave. Bassui Zenji speaks of it as clouds fading in the sky. Mind essence, Bassui says, is not subject to birth or death. It is neither being nor nothingness, neither emptiness nor form and color.
It is, as Yamada Koun Roshi has said, infinite emptiness, full of possibilities, at once altogether at rest and also charged with countless tendencies awaiting the fullness of karma. Here (name of child) is in complete repose, at one with the mystery that is our own birth and death, our own no-birth and no-death.
5. Heart Sutra in Japanese and English, as parents, leader, and friends offer incense.
Buddha nature pervades the whole universe,
existing right here and now;
with our reciting of Enmei Jikku Kannon Gyo
let us unite with
the Ancient Seven Buddhas,
Fully Realized Shakyamuni Buddha,
Great Compassion Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,
all Founding Teachers, past, present, future.
We especially dedicate our love and our prayerful thoughts to you (name of child)
May you rest in peace
Let true Dharma continueÑ
Sangha relations become complete
All Buddhas throughout space and time,
all Bodhisattvas, Mahasattvas,
the Great Prajna Paramita.
7. Great Vows for All in English
8. Three full vows
Western Buddhists could make quite
a contribution to the abortion conflict by offering these sentiments,
reflections and rituals for adaptation by our Christian and secular
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