The Oriental Outlook on Abortion
Even Buddhism recognizes the abortive woman's need to come to
terms with residual grief. Yvonne Rand, a Soto Zen priest trained at the San
Francisco Zen Center, has adapted the mizuko ritual to help American women who
have lost children come to terms with their grief. Each woman sews a bib which
she offers to an image of Jizo Bodhisattva with prayers for the well-being of
the child who has met with an accidental death or died through induced or
spontaneous abortion. This ritual has proved to be an excellent way for women to
deal with the psychological consequences of abortion.
Even so, both in the United States and Japan, there is concern that the
ritual can be interpreted as condoning abortion or as a kind of penance. In
Japan, a schedule of fees for these services has replaced the donation system
and abortion has become big business, with sizable amounts of money changing
hands. Unscrupulous entrepreneurs have taken advantage of women by raising the
specter of harmful influences from the vengeful spirits of mizuko and charging
for rites to propitiate and exorcise these spirits.
the Tibetan tradition, unwholesome actions may be purified by applying the Four
Opponent Powers: recognizing one's unwholesome action as a mistake, generating
remorse, determining not to repeat the action, and doing some purification
practice, such as meditation, prostrations, or the repetition of mantras or
prayers. Purification practices such as these serve as antidotes or methods to
counteract the effects of unskillful deeds. In addition to helping purify one's
karma, these practices have the effect of preventing debilitating feelings of
guilt and self-blame. Meditations on lovingkindness and compassion for oneself,
the aborted fetus, and all sentient beings help to replace feelings of sadness
Buddhist thinking on reproductive ethics
recognizes the complexity of the issues. Today traditional Buddhist perspectives
are being examined anew in light of technological discoveries such as
amniocentesis and nonsurgical abortion techniques such as the RU486 pill
developed in France.
There are no moral absolutes in
Buddhism and it is recognized that ethical decision-making involves a complex
nexus of causes and conditions. "Buddhism" encompasses a wide spectrum of
beliefs and practices, and the canonical scriptures leave room for a range of
interpretations. All of these are grounded in a theory of intentionality, and
individuals are encouraged to analyze issues carefully for themselves. There is
no overarching institutional structure to take an official stance, and the final
moral authority for actions is the individual herself.
When making moral choices, individuals are advised to examine their
motivation--whether aversion, attachment, ignorance, wisdom, or compassion--and
to weigh the consequences of their actions in light of the Buddha's teachings.
Moral ambiguity, conflicting values, and, in the case of abortion, extenuating
circumstances such as multiple birth defects, severe poverty, and dangers to the
mother's health or life, are acknowledged. These pose a wicket just as sticky
for Buddhists as for other ethical theorists and religious practitioners.
Traditional Buddhist cultures recognize birth, sickness, old age, and
death as natural events for all living beings, with social stigmas against
premarital and extramarital sex linked to an awareness of the possible
consequences of pregnancy and abortion. In general, Buddhists are advised to
avoid taking life and to protect the lives of all sentient beings, but Buddhists
also acknowledge that it is impossible for ordinary beings to avoid taking life
altogether. For example, although a vegetarian diet avoids taking the lives of
larger animals, planting the fields to grow vegetables and grains unavoidably
takes the life of many insects.
In Buddhism, a primary
guiding principle for ethical decision-making is the relief of suffering. It is
clear that both abortion and restrictive abortion laws can cause great suffering
for both mother and fetus. For Buddhists, the most obvious way to prevent the
sufferings caused by terminating a pregnancy is to provide education and legal
access to safe, reliable, and free or low-cost contraception. Although formal
education in reproductive health was not a part of traditional learning systems
in Buddhist countries, it could well find a place in education programs in
Buddhist societies today. Reproductive health education based on Buddhist
principles would emphasize wholesome living, mindfulness, compassion for all
sentient beings, and the wisdom to make sensible decisions.
In the end, most Buddhists recognize the incongruity that exists between
ethical theory and actual practice and, while they do not condone the taking of
life, do advocate understanding and compassion toward all living beings, a
lovingkindness that is nonjudgmental and respects the right and freedom of human
beings to make their own choices.
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