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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.


In 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 and depression.


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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