These child-monk statues represent the spirit of an aborted child. Men and women visit them singly or in couples to perform rites of apology. As a child, the image represents a mizuko, the living being that was aborted. As a monk it is Jizo (a form of the Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha) who may guide the spirits of the departed children on their journey through the realm of the dead. They evoke sadness and hope, aspiration and pity.Temples like Purple Cloud devoted solely to mizuko ceremonies marking the passage of an aborted fetus are common across Japan. The images are vivid expressions of the Buddhist belief that a fetus is a living being, and yet they occur in a culture in which abortion is common.
This combination of elements seems natural in Japan, but strange in the West – although some American Zen teachers perform mizuko ceremonies. Such ceremonies do address the emotions that abortion provokes. But the danger is that the rituals may tacitly condone abortion. So what are the ethical issues that abortion raises for Buddhists the world over?In recent years abortion has been debated in western countries with perhaps more passion than any other ethical issue. On one side the feminist lobby argues that a fetus is part of a woman’s body, and she should have the right to choose what happens to it. On the other side anti-abortion campaigners argue that the fetus is an independent being and that termination is murder. An extreme fringe of anti-abortionists in the us have even killed doctors who perform abortions, while in Ireland, where abortion is illegal, a referendum will soon be held on whether it should be legalised.
While many political debates can seem remote from ordinary experience, abortion concerns the mysterious stirrings of life in the deep intimacy of the womb. It involves flesh, blood and tissue. It touches strong feelings, and choices made around it alter the course of lives. Readers of this article may have had an abortion, or considered having one, or have been closely involved with a friend or partner who faced the issue. It is perhaps the most acute ethical problem that many of us are likely to confront in our personal lives. I also think men can and should engage with the abortion issue. It affects men, too, and while the choice will be a woman’s, the issues it raises are human, not just personal and subjective.
Disagreements about the ethics of abortion point up deeper uncertainties in post-Christian societies. When is the start of life which we can recognise as human? What is life anyway? How do we balance ‘the woman’s right to choose’ against ‘the child’s right to life’? And in the absence of consensus on these questions, who decides? Political debate about abortion has tended to polarise, but between the opposing stances stand ordinary people, including Buddhists, trying to act ethically, wanting lives that are free and fulfilling, yet which do not cause suffering.
Sometimes reasons for having an abortion are intensified by issues of rape, sexual abuse or severe disability. But in the space of this article I want to focus on basic ethical principles. These, however, are not rules, and must be applied in individual circumstances with compassion and imagination. For those who look to Buddhism as a source of #wisdom, can the Buddhist approach to ethics point out a path through the maze?
Each day all around the world Buddhists place their hand together in a gesture of devotion and chant the Pali words panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami (I undertake the training principle of not taking life). This is the primary principle of Buddhist ethics, the first precept. It is alternatively rendered as the principle of non-violence, and the imperative to act from compassion, or love. This is perhaps Buddhism’s greatest contribution to ethics, a single great principle: do not cause harm. When I started researching Buddhist responses to abortion I expected to find a range of views, mirroring the disagreements in society at large. In fact I found widespread agreement that for a Buddhist abortion is a breach of this precept – it is taking life. What was less straightforward was how this view should be implemented, how it translates into the complex, difficult realities of life.
Damien Keown is a leading academic authority on Buddhist ethics, who in 1999 edited Buddhism and Abortion, the first scholarly study of the subject. Talking over a coffee in London, he emphasised that Buddhism has a clear response to abortion. ‘If you look at the canonical texts and the views of the scholars the position is clear. It falls squarely within the first precept.’ The overwhelming majority of Buddhist teachers echo the view that abortion is taking life. Ven. Vajirajnana, a senior Sri Lankan bhikkhu living in Britain repeats the traditional view. ’Abortion is very wrong, because it is taking a life,’ he said. ‘We have no authority to take life.’
Buddhist texts do not deal with the issue of abortion at length, but where it is touched upon it is seen as killing. The Vinaya monastic code specifically forbids monks and nuns to perform abortions, and other texts suggest its harmful consequences. One garish semi-canonical text (a Jataka) even describes a river flowing through Mahaniraya, the Buddhist hell, from which abortionists and those who oppress the weak cannot escape. Its waters are sharp and bitter, and swords cover its sides.
The Buddhist position, then, seems plain. But it should be added that in fact Buddhism has had little to say on the subject. While the principles are clear, coherent and sound, there is little in the tradition by way of practical guidance. And, put so starkly, there is also something lacking in its message. Faced with so fraught a subject its words seem abstract, even inhumane.
I want to know what these teachings have to say to a woman experiencing the pain of an unwanted pregnancy, and contemplating the hardship and thwarted hopes an unwanted child would bring. What can they say to the guilt and confusion of many who have had abortions? Do these teachings simply compound that guilt with yet more religious disapproval? And do they imply that abortion should be made illegal, when doing so pushes it into an unregulated, inequitable back-street economy?
Such questions cannot be fully answered in this article, but it is instructive to consider why they have not yet been formulated. Damien Keown (who is not a practising Buddhist) suggested the reason lies in Buddhism’s role in Asia. ‘The Buddha was not concerned with reforming society, and subsequently institutional Buddhism has been driven by monks who see these as issues for lay-people. So it has backed away from many hard problems in favour of world-renunciation.’ One reason for this is related to its greatest strength. The emphasis of Buddhist morality lies in the cultivation of personal virtue. Buddhism has precise instructions – such as the metta bhavana (development of loving-kindness) meditation practice – for becoming more morally sensitive, and aware of others. But Keown remarks, ‘Buddhism has avoided commenting on moral questions by saying that if one has the requisite qualities one will know what to do.’
The result in some Buddhist societies, so far as abortion is concerned, is what Keown calls ‘schizophrenia’. His book contains studies of Thailand, Korea and Japan, where abortion is common among Buddhist women. But it has been hidden away, little discussed, a cause of shame. Keown explained that Buddhism is now being confronted by issues it has hitherto avoided. ‘In the West Buddhism is a non-monastic phenomenon and westerners want moral guidance. But in the absence of Buddhist ethical literature teachers don’t know where to look for answers. So you get a response like “it’s up to you, find your own way”. Perhaps worst is the Zen emphasis on emptiness and saying there is no right or wrong, which doesn’t help in a moral context. It is up to western Buddhists to develop a proper response. That will be the main growth area in Buddhist thought.’
The limitations of Buddhism’s practical ethics may come as a surprise to those who see it as an ideal religion with the virtues but without the faults of western religions. But the sincere ethical enquirer is likely also to be disappointed by the discussion of abortion that has taken place in the West, with its emphasis on rights, legal definitions, and appeals to science. In the remainder of this article I want to explore ways in which the encounter of Buddhism and the western abortion debate might be fruitful for both.
The key question in the abortion debate is, when is the start of life which we can recognise as human? Since Christian morality ceased to define a consensus, western societies have looked to science for guidance and to the law for judgement. The challenge for the law is to define a point at which a fetus should be under its protection. Before this a fetus is considered part of a woman’s body, and abortion is equivalent to surgery. After it, the fetus is considered to have an independent identity, and it may not be aborted.
But when should that point be? Virabhadra, a member of the Western Buddhist Order and a consultant gynaecologist, is aware of current scientific understanding such as when the brain can support a consciousness that can feel pain, and when a fetus is capable of surviving outside the womb. However, he emphasised that science cannot decide when a fetus is a being in its own right. For example, he said, ‘an embryo can’t survive without the mother until quite late in pregnancy, but the point at which a fetus can survive independently has come down as technology has advanced.’
Whatever point one chooses in the embryo’s development as constituting life seems arbitrary and artificial. It is one thing to describe changes, another to evaluate their significance, and yet another to decide how one should act upon them. As Virabhadra said, ‘Science cannot tell us what life is, nor whether it should be taken.’
The traditional Buddhist answer is more clear cut. Buddhism teaches that life starts with the conjunction of sperm, egg and the gandabbha (the consciousness that is reborn). For most Buddhist commentators and for some western Buddhists, that decides the issue. But I wonder if this is adequate. If the Buddhist position on abortion depends on a belief in rebirth, it will have nothing to say to those who do not share a conviction that rebirth occurs. This includes western society at large (including many western Buddhists) which is uncertain, agnostic or sceptical about rebirth.
The more one studies what Buddhist traditions have said about rebirth the more mysterious it seems. How can a very simple organism, such as a recently fertilised egg, be conscious in any recognisable sense of the term? And is it meaningful to speak of a consciousness that is seeking to express itself through such an organism? An embryo is a potential human being, but this is different from saying that something has been reborn. So Buddhists use metaphors that combine ideas of presence and potentiality, such as saying there ‘is’ a ‘seed’ of consciousness. However, an alternative Buddhist tradition (described in the Theravadin Katthavattu) argues that rebirth is a progressive process, lasting 11 weeks, that occurs as the fetus develops. So what implications might this have for abortion during that time?
It seems best to say that consciousness and human life are mysteries, and one looks in vain to Buddhism for explanations that clarify the mystery. Both Buddhism and science assert that the life of a human is a process which starts with conception. But to draw ethical conclusions one must consider the significance of the stages in that process. A plant is a form of life, and one’s fin#er is ‘alive’. But it isn’t unethical to dig up a potato, nor to cut one’s finger. The issue is not so much whether it is life but whether it is something we call human. The ethical question turns on when this ‘life’ becomes an ‘individual’ that will be affected by our actions.
Reflection on Buddhist teachings may suggest why the topic is elusive. If there is no soul or permanent, abiding self, and consciousness is a flux, then how can one speak of what it is to be alive and conscious? One can formulate cogent doctrinal descriptions, but there is something irreducible in the experience of being an individual separate from others, yet connected with them. What is it to think, to experience, to live? How, then, can one say what is reborn? When I reflect on the process of conception, gestation and birth I feel amazement and – to be honest – fear at nature’s mysterious power.
From this perspective one plainly cannot pin down questions of selfhood and identity. Similarly the question of when one should start to treat the fetus as human depends on conscience or moral sensibility. And one thing Buddhism can offer is an approach to learning how to listen to that conscience, and develop that sensibility.
I have asked many Buddhists from various traditions about their views on abortion and, while the overwhelming majority felt abortion was an ethical breach, their reasoning turned on a gut-felt, intuitive response to the question of when life starts. At the London Buddhist Centre Vimalachitta is responsible for working with women who are mitras or ‘friends’ in relation to the Western Buddhist Order. Mitras undertake to follow the five Buddhist precepts, including the precept of not taking life, with its implications for abortion. Vimalachitta reported that in her many conversations on abortion, rebirth rarely figures. She told me, however, that because of intuitive factors this issue is rarely a problem.
‘When people start meditating they almost always come to feel that an abortion would be taking life. There are concerns about what would happen in an extreme case (such as a pregnancy resulting from rape) but that is understandable. It helps when I explain that this is not a political statement, and when I say it does not mean you are condemning people who do choose to have abortions.’
This intuitive response to ethics seems to me to point to a dimension that has been missing from debate in the West. Buddhism can learn from the western tradition of ethical reasoning. Learning to think about ethical issues seems to be an important aspect of preparing ouselves to meet them: a crisis such as an unwanted pregnancy is probably the worst time to try to think clearly about right or wrong. But ethics usually concerns human relationships, and understanding these requires intuition, sensitivity and an emotionally integrated awareness of others. Then we need clarity and courage to draw conclusions and stick by them.
While researching this article I spoke to women who have had abortions, and I think their testimonies are important. I have space for just one case study. Lisa (not her real name) is an ordained Buddhist who teaches meditation and Buddhism in England. She had an abortion aged 28, before she became a Buddhist. ‘I was a student and a committed feminist trying to understand what it meant to be a woman at that time, the 1970s. I had no desire for kids, and ‘the woman’s right to choose’ was an article of faith for me; and for medical reasons there was also a chance that I would have a spontaneous abortion. So I immediately decided to have one. Moral considerations did not enter at all.’
However the abortion affected Lisa in unexpected ways. ‘I really underestimated the emotional impact. After the operation my response was, “Oh no, how dreadful.” The emotional distress I felt stayed with me a long time. I had made my decision intellectually, but in retrospect I think I cut off from my emotional responses. I had not anticipated that I would feel grief, and that there had been a death.’
Talking with other women who have had abortions I found frequent echoes of Lisa’s experience. They were unprepared for the actual experience of having an abortion, the instinctive sense that the fetus was alive. One person’s experience can never represent everyone’s, and responses to having an abortion do vary. Some women feel sadness, but not regret. Some say they would do the same thing again, given similar circumstances. Others wouldn’t. Intuitions are not arguments, but it seems important to value emotionally-aware responses such as Lisa’s and I wonder what happens when political views overlay them.
Ethical decisions involve value judgments, so it is inevitable that subjective factors enter. Scientists’ descriptions and legal definitions cannot tell us when humanity starts. The doctrines of Buddhism will persuade us only if we already have faith in them. But perhaps the feeling that abortion is wrong helps us to draw closer to a truth. For Buddhists it is ironic that the law seeks to define identity through separatenes. Buddhist ethics are based on the idea that we are not separate, all life is dependent on other life, and for that very reason it is natural to care about each other. Even after a baby is born it could not survive without the sustenance and protection of its mother. The language – of rights and legal identity – in which the abortion debate is framed seems inadequate to the subtle connections between mother and fetus, fetus and baby.
If reality is subtle and changing, then our understanding of it cannot be definitive or absolute; yet it seems wise to err on the side of ensuring that one is not causing harm. I do not know to what extent animals can suffer, but I choose to be vegetarian because I feel that they can, because there is some evidence that they do, and because I know that they might. So I may not be able to prove that a fetus has consciousness, can experience pain, or should be regarded as a human individual, but the fact that this may be the case is a decisive consideration for me.
Western discussions of abortion have been identified with the legal question of whether abortion should be permitted. This pulls it into a political arena, which is hardly suited to open-hearted reflection on the nature of life. It also mixes legal and moral issues. We tend to think that if abortion is legal that means it is right, but all it does is to move moral responsibility from the state to the mother. We speak of an individual’s ‘right to choose’ whether to have an abortion, but we speak too little of what that choice involves.
I like the suggestion of the Buddhist commentator in his book Inner Revolution. ‘Aware of the serious moral, physical and psychological consequences [of abortion], we should offer every facility and advantage to the woman who chooses to bring her baby to term … great honour and respect, excellent health care, good adoption programmes …’. This seems more constructive than the violent protests of American pro-lifers, but I am also aware that the facilities which Robert Thurman advocates are not available to many of those confronted by an unwanted pregnancy.
Abortion presents a challenge to our compassion. This compassion must include the baby and the aborting mother, holding together their conflicting perspectives and their sad collision. So I would add to Thurman’s wish-list the kind of sensitive counselling for women considering abortion that helps the decision to be made in an atmosphere free from panic, fear or guilt. The days of ‘coffee-break abortions’ are long gone, and the decision to have an abortion is rarely taken without strong reasons. I am not arguing for making abortion illegal. The fact that debate has continued unresolved suggests there is genuine room for disagreement.
Damien Keown says, ‘Buddhism cannot offer a middle way on abortion, because it has already taken sides.’ Its contribution is a single, clear principle, the ethical precept of not taking life. But as I have explored this issue, spoken to those who have views on it, talked with women who have faced abortions, and considered the traditional teachings, I have understood more fully that the way this principle is implemented is as important as the principle itself. Perhaps the most important thing Buddhism can contribute to this ethical debate is a compassionate and engaged sensibility that seeks to be true to life’s difficulty and complexity.