Buddhist Perspectives on the Abortion Debate

A Buddhist Perspective on the Abortion Issue

Buddha statue and the Sun

Cultura RM Exclusive/Lost Horizon Images / Getty Images

The U.S. has struggled with the issue of abortion for many years without coming to a consensus. We need a fresh perspective, the Buddhist view of the abortion issue may provide one.

Buddhism does consider abortion to be the taking of a human life. At the same time, Buddhists generally are reluctant to intervene in a woman's personal decision to terminate a pregnancy. Buddhism may discourage abortion, but it also discourages imposing rigid moral absolutes.

This may seem contradictory. In our culture, many think that if something is morally wrong it ought to be banned. However, the Buddhist view is that the rigid following of rules is not what makes us moral. Further, imposing authoritative rules often creates a new set of moral wrongs.

What About Rights?

First, the Buddhist view of abortion does not include a concept of rights, either a "right to life" or a "right to one's own body." In part, this is because Buddhism is a very old religion, and the concept of human rights is relatively recent. However, approaching abortion as merely a "rights" issue doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere.

"Rights" are defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as "entitlements (not) to perform certain actions or be in certain states, or entitlements that others (not) perform certain actions or be in certain states." In this argument, a right becomes a trump card that, when played, wins the hand and shuts down all further consideration of the issue. However, activists both for and against legal abortion believe their trump card beats the other side's trump card. So nothing is settled.

When Does Life Begin?

Scientists tell us that life began on this planet about 4 billion years ago, and since then life has expressed itself in diverse forms beyond counting. But no one has observed it "beginning." We living beings are manifestations of an unbroken process that has been going on for 4 billion years, give or take. To me, "When does life begin?" is a nonsensical question.

And if you understand yourself as a culmination of a 4-billion-year-old process, then is conception really more significant that the moment your grandfather met your grandmother? Is any one moment in those 4 billion years really separable from all the other moments and couplings and cell divisions going back to the first macromolecules to life's beginning, assuming life had a beginning?

You might ask, What about the individual soul? One of the most basic, most essential, and most difficult teachings of Buddhism is anatman or anatta -- no soul. Buddhism teaches that our physical bodies are not possessed of an intrinsic self, and our persistent sense of ourselves as separate from the rest of the universe is a delusion.

Understand that this is not a nihilistic teaching. The Buddha taught that if we can see through the delusion of the small, individual self, we realize a boundless "self" that is not subject to birth and death.

What Is the Self?

Our judgments on issues depend heavily on how we conceptualize them. In western culture, we understand individuals to be autonomous units. Most religions teach that these autonomous units are invested with a soul.

According to the doctrine of anatman, what we think of as our "self" is a temporary creation of the skandhas. The skandhas are attributes -- form, senses, cognition, discrimination, consciousness -- that come together to create a distinctive, living being.

As there is no soul to transmigrate from one body to another, there is no "reincarnation" in the usual sense of the word. "Rebirth" occurs when the karma created by a past life carries over to another life. Most schools of Buddhism teach that conception is the beginning of the process of rebirth and does, therefore, mark the beginning of a human being's life.

The First Precept

The First Precept of Buddhism often is translated "I undertake to refrain from destroying life." Some schools of Buddhism make a distinction between animal and plant life, and some do not. Although human life is most important, the Precept cautions us to refrain from taking life in any of its countless manifestations.

That said, there is no question that terminating a pregnancy is an extremely serious matter. Abortion is considered to be taking a human life and is strongly discouraged in Buddhist teachings.

Buddhism teaches us not to impose our views on others and to have compassion for those facing difficult situations. Although some predominantly Buddhist countries, such as Thailand, place legal restrictions on abortion, many Buddhists do not think the state should intervene in matters of conscience.

The Buddhist Approach to Morality

Buddhism does not approach morality by handing out absolute rules to be followed in all circumstances. Instead, it provides guidance to help us see how what we do affects ourselves and others. The karma we create with our thoughts, words and actions keeps us subject to cause and effect. Thus, we assume responsibility for our actions and the results of our actions. Even the Precepts are not commandments, but principles, and it is up to us to decide how to apply those principles to our lives.

Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a professor of theology and a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, explains,

"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. ... 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."

What's Wrong With Moral Absolutes?

Our culture places great value on something called "moral clarity." Moral clarity rarely is defined, but it can also mean ignoring the messier aspects of complex moral issues so that one can apply simple, rigid rules to solving them. If you take all facets of an issue into account, you risk not being clear.

Moral clarifiers love to rework all ethical problems into simple equations of right and wrong, good and bad. There is an assumption that an issue can have only two sides, and that one side must be entirely right and the other side entirely wrong. Complex issues are simplified and oversimplified and stripped of all ambiguous aspects to make them fit into "right" and "wrong" boxes.

To a Buddhist, this is a dishonest and unskillful way to approach morality.

In the case of abortion, often people who have taken a side glibly dismiss the concerns of any other side. For example, in much anti-abortion literature women who have abortions are portrayed as selfish or thoughtless, or sometimes just plain evil. The very real problems an unwanted pregnancy might bring to a woman's life are not honestly acknowledged. Moralists sometimes discuss embryos, pregnancy, and abortion without mentioning women at all. At the same time, those who favor legal abortion sometimes fail to acknowledge the humanity of the fetus.

The Fruits of Absolutism

Although Buddhism discourages abortion, we see that criminalizing abortion causes much suffering. The Alan Guttmacher Institute documents that criminalizing abortion does not stop it or even reduce it. Instead, abortion goes underground and is performed in unsafe conditions.

In desperation, women submit to unsterile procedures. They drink bleach or turpentine, perforate themselves with sticks and coat hangers, and even jump off roofs. Worldwide, unsafe abortion procedures cause the deaths of about 67,000 women per year, mostly in nations in which abortion is illegal.

Those with "moral clarity" can ignore this suffering. A Buddhist cannot. In his book, The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics, Robert Aitken Roshi said (p.17), "The absolute position, when isolated, omits human details completely. Doctrines, including Buddhism, are meant to be used. Beware of them taking the life of their own, for then they use us."

The Buddhist Approach

An almost universal consensus among Buddhist ethicists that the best approach to the abortion issue is to educate people about birth control and encourage them to use contraceptives. Beyond that, as Karma Lekshe Tsomo writes,

"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 loving kindness that is nonjudgmental and respects the right and freedom of human beings to make their own choices."

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
O'Brien, Barbara. "Buddhist Perspectives on the Abortion Debate." Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, learnreligions.com/buddhist-perspectives-on-abortion-449712. O'Brien, Barbara. (2021, February 8). Buddhist Perspectives on the Abortion Debate. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/buddhist-perspectives-on-abortion-449712 O'Brien, Barbara. "Buddhist Perspectives on the Abortion Debate." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/buddhist-perspectives-on-abortion-449712 (accessed June 2, 2023).