On the Moral and Traditional Complexities of Abortion – Buddhistdoor Global

At pewresearch.org

On May 3, the American magazine Politics released a leaked draft of the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Thomas E. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. The case has long been seen as an attempt to overturn the precedent set in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case. The decision, drawing on the US Constitution’s “right to privacy”, protects the right of pregnant person to choose to have an abortion without undue government restrictions.

Proponents of legal abortion access have been predicting the verdict since late last year, when closing arguments were made and Justice Questions hinted at such an outcome. Even before that, when Donald Trump was elected president and then given the opportunity to seat three new justices on the nine-person panel, it was widely predicted that Roe would be challenged.

If the proposed ruling is signed into law, Americans will lose the federal guarantee and many states will ban most abortion procedures. While many states will seek to ensure access for those wishing to travel and no change is in sight elsewhere in the world, such a change could open the door to the removal or further restriction of access to abortion in the United States.

At pewresearch.org

Recent polls of Buddhists in the United States suggest overwhelming support for keeping abortion legal in all or most cases. However, this narrowing of the options to yes/no/uncertain obscures the complexity of the issue of abortion for Buddhists, both in the United States today and around the world throughout history.

Opinions range from those who believe that a future human life worthy of equal status and protection begins at conception, to those who view abortion as a form of health care – something that should be safe. , legal and widely available.

The textual sources offer no absolute and clear guidance, and support for both of these perspectives can be found. For Buddhist ethicists, abortion is clearly included in the first secular precept to refrain from harming living beings. In Vinaya literature, monks were prohibited from inducing or assisting in an abortion.

According to Buddhist thought on rebirth, a new being descends into the womb at the time of conception. Because a human rebirth is extremely rare and important for the pursuit of enlightenment, ending such an opportunity is a very powerful act.

While these considerations lend weight to the arguments of those seeking to restrict access to abortion, a number of other factors must also be taken into account. The reduction of harm and the alleviation of suffering are goals towards which Buddhists largely strive. When considering the range of effects of strict restrictions on access to abortion, many people begin to side more with those who want abortion to remain safe and legal.

In the United States, demographer Dr Diana Greene Foster has spent 10 years tracking the experiences of women who have had or were refused abortions. What she found was a slew of issues for women who are denied abortions, ranging from physical and mental health issues to diminished socio-economic well-being. On the other hand, those who had access to abortion had improved mental well-being, although many felt negative emotions about the procedure at first.

Sallie Jiko Tisdale, a lay Dharma teacher at the Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon, and who once worked in an abortion clinic, discussed these factors in an article last year:

Killing is an act that is always wrong, according to the precepts. But the precept is not just about physical murder. It is a precept of ahimsa, non-harmful. At the clinic, I was reminded daily that people don’t “get pregnant.” People are impregnated, by accident, intentionally and sometimes by violence. Forced pregnancy kills spirit, joy, freedom, opportunity and hope. Abortion can be a lifesaver.


Reading these considerations alongside the results of Dr. Foster’s demographic research, we might be reminded of the long-standing roots of Buddhism in patriarchal societies. Given the contexts of early Buddhism and much of Buddhist history, patriarchal systems limited what Buddhist thinkers could write about and perhaps even see as realities around them.

As Dr. Amy Paris Langenberg, an expert on classical South Asian Buddhism, wrote in 2020:

What is left in the dark by the philosophical approaches outlined above, however, is the fact that gender complicates ethical decision-making. To neglect the question of gender is to assume that all actors approach the question of abortion with the same vital concerns and the same existential pressures. . . . Exploring Buddhist ethics on abortion without paying attention to gender and only through an androcentric textual tradition in which the embodied perspectives and experiences of women are not fully considered is not enough.

Institute of Buddhist Studies

The Buddha is widely described as having advanced the status of women in his day, acknowledging both their capacity to awaken and establish the monastic woman (bhikshuni) lineage. Nevertheless, it offered nothing close to equality in practical matters. And subsequent generations of Buddhists even reduced the status and freedoms of women.

Regarding abortion, Dr. Langenberg notes that people in most historically Buddhist societies tend to disapprove of abortion. An exception to this is post-war Japan, where laws were liberal and abortion was commonly practiced. Western Buddhists, too, largely consider abortion permissible.

These differences may have less to do with Buddhism in itself and more to do with the general desire of society to take women’s opinions into account. In many of these societies, things are beginning to change. Almost 30 years ago, the Dalai Lama signaled this development, while noting the textual tradition, saying:

Of course, abortion, from a Buddhist point of view, is an act of killing and is generally negative. But it depends on the circumstances. . . . I think abortion should be approved or disapproved depending on each circumstance.

The New York Times

Considering “every circumstance” seems to be the most progressive view that any abortion decision should ultimately be made by a pregnant person and their health care provider. By suggesting this, the Dalai Lama and others holding this position should not be seen as breaking with tradition. On the contrary, like the Dalai Lama, we can maintain both the androcentric tradition and a more modern and balanced view at the same time. While it can be difficult to have two seemingly opposing viewpoints at once, especially in heated and polarized political environments, it seems necessary for those who take seriously both the reality of the 2-year-old Buddhist tradition 600 years and the reality of reproductive rights in today’s world. .

See more

The Supreme Court has voted to strike down the right to abortion, according to a draft opinion (Politics)
Landmark study tracks lasting effect of having an abortion — or being denied one (NPR)
Is there a Buddhist view on abortion? (Tricycle)
What does Buddhism say about abortion? (Institute of Buddhist Studies)
The Dalai Lama (The New York Times)

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