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Abortion in Buddhism

The first Buddhist precept is a prohibition of killing any living beings. What about abortion?

Traditional Buddhism rejects abortion because it involves the deliberate destroying of a life.

Modern Buddhists, however, are more divided about the morality of abortion and this is more of a personal decision. The decision to abort is therefore a highly personal one and definitely not an easy one. One that requires careful and compassionate exploration of the ethical issues involved, and a willingness to carry the burden of whatever happens as a result of the decision.

Abortion is widely performed in some countries in which Buddhism is influential, such as Japan and South Korea. In other Buddhist countries, such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma abortion is more restricted.

As stated by his Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama:

“With the basic understanding of all humans as brothers and sisters, we can appreciate the usefulness of different systems and ideologies that can accomodate different dispositions, different tastes. For certain people under certain conditions, a certain ideology or cultural heritage is more useful. Each person has the right to choose whatever is most suitable. This is the individual's business on the basis of deep understanding of all other persons as brothers and sisters.”

Buddhism and killing

According to the teachings of Buddha, five conditions must be present to constitute an act of killing.

  • the thing killed must be a living being

  • you, the killer, must know or be aware that it is a living being

  • you must have the intention to kill it

  • there must be an effort to kill

  • the being must be killed as the result

Here's an example of how an abortion might constitute an act of killing:

  • When a baby is conceived, a living being is created and that satisfies the first condition.

  • After a few weeks the woman becomes aware of its existence and that meets the second condition.

  • If she decides she wants an abortion that provides an intention to kill.

  • When she seeks an abortion that meets the fourth condition of making an effort to kill.

  • Finally the being is killed because of that action.

Key to the arguments in the abortion debate is the central question of when

human life begins. Buddhists believe that beings live in a cycle of birth death and rebirth, they regard the moment of conception as the beginning of the life of an embodied individual.

The cornerstone of Buddhist cosmology is a belief in rebirth. All sentient beings constantly undergo the cycle of birth-death-rebirth and have done so from beginningless time. They will do so through the foreseeable future until ended by the realization of enlightenment.

On several occasions pregnant women are concerned either they should carry their babies to term. In most of the cases there would be no serious illness or sign of genetic abnormality, and the mother would feel no lack of love for the baby. The main problem is almost always a feeling of insecurity about receiving sufficient support to be able to provide a good home for the baby.

The decision also applies to the "special circumstances" common in the abortion debate: rape, fetal deformity or disease, a threat to the mother's physical or mental health. These are difficult and complex issues.

In the "special circumstances," situations are such that in order to relieve her own suffering, a mother may seek an abortion.

Thus, the human rebirth is considered rare, difficult to obtain, and to be highly protected. This in no way relieves the woman of her suffering but is meant to encourage her to protect the life within her. Buddhism encourages altruistic attitudes emphasizing the benefit of others as opposed to our own narrow self-interest.

Motivation behind the action is the most important part. If the motivation is good, the karmic consequences will be different.

If the decision is taken compassionately, and after long and careful thought then although the action may be wrong the moral harm done will be reduced by the good intentions involved.

A Buddhist will think about how much suffering may result from either the pregnancy continuing or from an abortion.

There may be occasions where abortion is the most compassionate thing to do.

In the end of the day, abortion may sometimes be necessary but is never desirable, and should never be performed without the deepest consideration of all aspects of the situation.

Abortion In Japan

Japanese Buddhists have had to make significant efforts to reconcile abortion with their religion, as abortion is common in Japan, and has been used as a form of birth control.

Some followers of Japanese Buddhism who have had an abortion make offerings to Jizo, the god of lost travellers and children. They believe that Jizo will steward the child until it is reborn in another incarnation.

They do this in a mizuko kuyō, a memorial service for aborted children that became popular in the 1970s. (The service can also be used in cases of miscarriage or stillbirth.) The ritual includes elements of folk religion and Shinto as well as Buddhism.

There is no absolute right or wrong, no clear-cut solution. We are all the same in that we wish to avoid suffering and desire to increase our happiness


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