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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Buddhism and Abortion

By Kumari Jayasundara
Mention the word Buddhist and what most people draw up is an image of the stereotypic liberal: hippie, junkie, vegan, possibly homosexual, and now, even pro-abortion. Drugs and vegetarianism aside, let me clear any confusion there is about abortion.

This is from a Buddhist’s point of view.

Alright, first off, let us examine as to why certain people hold such a view. It’s not that it’s entirely wrong to say that some ‘modern’ Buddhists today actually uphold this image, but it is wrong to say that all Buddhists in general conform to this image. In fact, only a handful so called Buddhists do, and, according to Buddhist terms, this handful does not qualify as Buddhists.

One must understand that Buddhism is a very free religion, with no commandments or god to obey. It is not at all as strict as Christianity, Islam, or even Judaism. Unfortunately, it is this freedom that is abused by the naive and dim-witted.

Many people who want to follow in their frivolous lifestyles assume that they will be free from judgment by a god or any other all-powerful deity if they embrace Buddhism. Buddhism is their ‘way out’ of a ‘system’ that bars them from their activities. They use – or should I say misuse – this freedom and take it as a shield while they engage in their frivolous and irresponsible activities. They use Buddhism as an excuse.

So what is the Buddhist view on this subject of abortion? Before we get into the details, let us first come up with a definition for the term.

“An abortion is the termination of a pregnancy by the removal or expulsion from the uterus of a fetus or embryo, resulting in or caused by its death. An abortion can occur spontaneously due to complications during pregnancy or can be induced, in humans and other species. In the context of human pregnancies, an abortion induced to preserve the health of the pregnant female is termed a therapeutic abortion, while an abortion induced for any other reason is termed an elective abortion. The term abortion most commonly refers to the induced abortion of a human pregnancy, while spontaneous abortions are usually termed miscarriages.”

Okay, so abortion = termination of a pregnancy resulting in the death of the fetus.

Now let’s look at why abortions are carried out.

1. Medical complications – Either both mother and child, or mother alone, may have fatal or serious complications if the pregnancy is allowed to be carried to term.

2. Rape victims – Rape victims who have become pregnant do not wish to carry the child of their rapist. This decision is usually carried out as a result of emotional trauma, including hatred, and shame. Sometimes it is the family of the victim that persuades her to go through with an abortion, for the sake of saving the family reputation. The victim is left with the decision to bring the baby to the world and lose support from her family, give the baby up for adoption, or to abort the pregnancy. Usually, the family does not opt for adoption because society will get to know about the mother’s pregnancy. After all, it is pretty hard to hide a progressively developing belly (unless you tell people you’ve got a massive tumor growing in there...). Therefore abortion is usually the most common choice.

3. ‘Accidents’ happen. A wild night out, or a one night stand (without the pills, or condoms) sometimes ends up with the female party getting knocked up. Neither parents are ready to take up responsibility for their actions and therefore decide to just easily abort the pregnancy.

Why is abortion viewed merely as something scientific, or medical, rather than something closely related to ethics? Or morals? When you break something down so much into establishing it as a scientific procedure that is exactly what it becomes: just another scientific procedure. And when we think scientific, we don’t exactly think religion, or morals, do we? No, because we are taught – especially at the beginning of a semester of genetics – that science and religion don’t mix. So abortion suddenly becomes just another surgery. A quick fix to a ‘problem’.

Can there really be a scientific religion in actual existence? Science and religion are supposed to be two different things. Science attempts to explain and find answers to questions that deal with the natural world, the mundane everyday world and universe that is perceived by the senses. Religion, on the other hand, tries to explain things that cannot be otherwise explained in the mundane world. Religion deals with the supernatural and the spiritual.

However, it is interesting to note that Buddhism is neither a science nor a religion. It is not a science because it does not deal only with the world perceived by our senses, and it is not a religion because it does not require ‘belief’ in anything. That is why, if you ask a Buddhist, they’d say ‘I know’ instead of ’I believe’. Neither is it a philosophy, as most commonly refer to it.[1]

However, what Buddhism really is has been greatly misunderstood by those new to the subject. Most blatantly assume that, because Buddhism agrees with a lot of things in modern science, everything scientific is accepted in Buddhism. This is not true. Science is science, and its existence does not rely on morals. Buddhism, on the other hand, is not at all devoid of morals. After all, the very first precept in the Buddhist disciplinary code is “I shall abstain from taking life.”

This is part of the karaniya metta sutta (discourse on loving kindness):

Let one contemplate and wish:
May all beings be well and safe.
May all beings be happy.
Whatever living beings there may be—
whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
the great or the mighty, medium size, short, small, or large,
those seen and those unseen, those dwelling near and far away,
those born as well as those yet to be born—
may all beings be happy at heart.

From a Buddhist’s point of view, I don’t think we can accept only the scientific definition of what a life is, or more precisely, when a fertilized egg can be considered a human life. We cannot judge whether something is a life or not just because it doesn’t look human or animal.

Most people who’re anti-abortion go to great lengths to carry their cause either by trying to prove that a fetus’ heart starts to beat after so long, or by holding nauseating posters of aborted fetuses. I think this is a simple point and doesn’t need to be carried so far. Simply: if a woman is pregnant, that means she is carrying life, be it one cell or a mass of cells without any discernible features.

Re-read the passage from the karaniya metta sutta. Pay special attention to the line before the last: “those born as well as those yet to be born”. It is obvious that, according to Buddhism, one must respect all life, even those that are yet to be born. If you call yourself a Buddhist and yet say that you are in favor of abortion, then you’re throwing away the meaning of the very first precept of abstaining from taking life. You cannot contemplate and wish for the well-being, safety, and happiness of all beings if you are in favor of taking away an unborn life.

Fortunately, I have no illegitimate children born out of wed lock or as a result of rape. Heaven forbid that ever happens, and I do not wish it to happen to anybody else either! I am not denying that rape is a heinous crime and that it is an extremely painful ordeal that even a lifetime may not be able to erase. But there cannot be any justification in taking away the life of the unborn child that has come into existence as a result of it. After all, what has the child done to deserve such a fate? It may not be an easy thing to do, but to let go of the attachment to the memory of it is possibly the best way to heal: letting go and moving on just like everything else that arises, comes to be, and passes away.[2]

Also, society should be more understanding of victims of rape and should stop stigmatizing them. There are some idiots who blame the victim for what happened! Yeah, I have no clue where they get their logic from...

The worst kind, however, are the people who casually have sex – irresponsibly – whenever they want to and then just very easily throw away the life of an unborn child just because they are not ready to take up responsibility.

What about the case where an abortion needs to be carried out for medical reasons (therapeutic abortion)? What’s the Buddhist view on that? Is it okay to perform a therapeutic abortion? Once again, life is more important than anything else. If you can save at least one life, then it is better than letting two die. Therefore yes, it is okay.

The bottom line is that elective abortion does not sit anywhere on the list of ‘Okays’ in Buddhism, so please do not assume that Buddhism sits in favor of abortion. Buddhism is not a ‘get-away’ ticket or a ‘quick fix’. It is an education and a way of life.


[1]To find out why Buddhism is neither a philosophy nor a doctrine, read the excerpt from a conversation between Dighanaka the ascetic and the Gautama Buddha which I’ve included at the bottom of this post. Link:
[2] The concept of ‘letting go’ comes from the Buddhist teaching that all things are Anicca (impermanent), Dukkha (unsatisfactory), and Anatma (lacking self). Link:

Buddhism: Neither a Philosophy nor a Doctrine

Dighanakha asked the Buddha, "Gautama, what is your teaching? What are your doctrines? For my part, I dislike all doctrines and theories. I don't subscribe to any at all."

The Buddha smiled and asked, "Do you subscribe to your doctrine of not following any doctrines? Do you believe in your doctrine of not-believing?"

Somewhat taken aback, Dighanakha replied, "Gautama whether I believe or don't believe is no importance."

The Buddha spoke gently, "Once a person is caught by belief in a doctrine, he loses all his freedom. When one becomes dogmatic, he believes his doctrine is the only truth and that all other doctrines are heresy. Disputes and conflicts all arise from narrow views. They can extend endlessly, wasting precious time and sometimes even leading to war. Attachment to views is the greatest impediment to the spiritual path. Bound to narrow views, one becomes so entangled that it is no longer possible to let the door of truth open."


Dighanakha asked, "But what of your own teaching? If someone follows your teaching will he become caught in narrow views?"

"My teaching is not a doctrine nor a philosophy. It is not the result of discursive thought or mental conjecture like various philosophies which contend that the fundamental essence of the universe is fire, water, earth, wind, or spirit, or that the universe is either finite or infinite, temporal, or eternal. Mental conjecture and discursive thought about truth are like ants crawling around the rim of the bowl -- they never get anywhere. The things I say come from my own experience. You can confirm them all by your own experience.


My goal is not to explain the universe, but to help guide others to have a direct experience of reality. Words cannot describe reality. Only direct experience enables us to see the true face of reality."Dighanakha exclaimed, "Wonderful, wonderful Gautama! But what would happen if a person did perceive your teaching as a dogma?"


I must state clearly that my teaching is method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. An intelligent person makes use of the finger to see the moon."

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