Buddhism and Abortion

Applying the Dharma to social justice issues – race, religion, sexuality and identity
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Buddhism and Abortion

Post by Dharmasherab » Tue Aug 06, 2019 7:40 am

I want to begin by saying that I have no political affiliation or political loyalty. I am politically neutral. Politics is something which I dont want to know about and I am in the process of unlearning anything political that I know. I say this because people are very quick to assume that some statements come from political viewpoints - I assure there is nothing political in any of my posts including the content within this post.

This is about abortion and karma according to my understanding of the teachings of Buddhism. When I say Buddhism, I mean what is common to all traditional forms of Buddhism (Sravakayayana (including Theravada), Mahayana and Vajrayana).

This post is not about the rights of women. This post does not cover rights. Bringing rights into question will not be raised here.

In Buddhism, sentient life is a bundle of 5 aggregates. There is the physical form of a living being (Rupa), and the rest of the other aggregates which form the mind and sensory consciousness (Nama and Vinnana).

For human beings life starts in the womb. The 5 aggregates start to assemble soon after conception. The Sensory Counsciousness (Vinnana) from the previous life appears in the Rupa (the Form at this stage which is the embryo) and afterwards, the aggregates of Feeling (Vedana), Perception (Sanna) and Mental Volition (Sankhara) take place - and now this is a sentient being.

Buddhist monks who have gone into deep states of meditation, sometimes experience their past, including the time when they were in the womb of their mothers. When the mother moves they feel the discomfort. When the mother drinks something hot, they feel the hotness and the discomfort that comes along with those sensations. When the mother drinks something cold they feel the cold sensation as well as the discomfort that comes along with that. This is to show that the experiences felt by the embryo/foetus whiles in utero was something that was real.

When someone ordains as a monastic, then 9 months is added to their age and it is this age which is recognized for individuals withing the monastic sangha. This is not to say that one can know exact birth date in utero but its just gives a rough idea as to when this individual started as a 'bundle of 5 aggregates'. For example, I am 30 years old according to convention. But had I been a monk, I would be considered to be 31 years old within the monastic sangha. Because since the time of Buddha, it was recognized that the actual birth an individual, the actual assembly of the 5 aggregates takes place in utero for human beings.

In Buddhism, the first precept is to avoid killing/harming any sentient living being. Killing generates bad karma according to Buddhism. Killing means to identify a living sentient being and then to deliberately bring about an action to end the life of that living sentient being. It means that we are aware that the sentient being was living. It was recognized that the sentient being was alive, and then the necessary actions to bring about the end of life of that sentient being was thought of and then those thoughts were put into action to bring about the death of that living sentient being.

This is different from living beings dying from the unintended consequences of our actions (such as ants dying when we are walking or small insects being crushed when we are driving without our knowledge or awareness).

"Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect."
AN 6.63 Nibbedhika Sutta

'Intention' here does not mean intention about consequences (like the new baby being born will not have anyone to look after and therefore I will do an abortion). Intention here means whether the intention involved that act of killing or not.

What is recognised as life in Buddhism is different in Buddhism as compared to science. For example in science, bacteria is a type of living being. But in Buddhism, bacteria and other microorganisms are not sentient beings. If they were sentient beings then we commit bad karma every time we have antibiotics to get rid of an infection. Whenever we are in the shower we will be destroying so many of our body cells and our body cells are much more advanced than any type of bacteria, but does this mean we commit bad karma when we wash ourselves in the shower? This is why Buddhism uses the word 'sentient' to distinguish between beings which consist of 5 aggregates compared with non-sentient yet scientifically living organisms such as bacteria and fungi. Bacteria and fungi do not consist of 5 aggregates, therefore to get treatment to get rid of bacteria or fungi from the body does not generate bad karma or violate the first precept.

What is recognized as sentience and consciousness in science differs from Buddhism. This is not to say that they are completely mutually exclusive. What is accepted as sentience and consciousness in science is that which is observer-based. As for Buddhism, Vinnana is not identical to the scientific expression of consciousness. Therefore what is understood as 'sentience' or 'consciousness' from a scientific viewpoint does not form any part of the moral criteria as far as Buddhist ethics are concerned in relation to abortion.

Given that 5 aggregates assemble a few days after conception, to bring about the end of this by doing an abortion is to violate the first precept of Buddhism. It generates bad karma in all circumstances without exception. To deliberately bring about an action to put an end to the interaction of the 5 aggregates within the living sentient being is what includes the act of killing.

If a monastic (nun or monk living under Vinaya) was to perform the act of abortion on someone, then this is a reason to be expelled from the monastic order. One can either go back to their lay lives or join as a novice (Samanera) but within that life one is not allowed to become a Bhikkhu/Bhikkhuni again. This also includes explaining the advantages of death. To explain the advantages of abortion as a monastic includes a Parajika offense - to be expelled from the order permanently. This is because even from the time when the Buddhist Vinaya was implemented, it was agreed that abortion was a form of killing no different from killing any other sentient being.

As for lay Buddhists, they are not under the Vinaya, but not living under Vinaya rules does not give immunity from bad karma. Whether monastic or lay, the karma is the same, its only that monastics get expelled from their orders for doing that, suggesting that or encouraging that.

Like I mentioned earlier, this is not about women's rights. I want to reiterate that this is not about whether women should have a right to do abortions or not - they can decide that for themselves. Its just that regardless of whether there are rights for abortions or not, according to the Buddhist law of karma, there will always be bad karma which gets generated from the act of abortion. Buddhism does not have the 'thou shalt not' concept for Buddhists. Lay people can break precepts as much as they like. Monastics are also free to break their Vinaya rules as long as they accept the consequences of breaking such rules. In Buddhism, anyone is free to do what they like.

I am from Sri Lanka, and fishing is popular over there where there are plenty of Sri Lankan fishermen who are Buddhists, who kill fish to make a living. There are Buddhist butchers in Sri Lanka as well as in the rest of the world. There are Buddhist gynecologists who do that career for a living and part of that occupation also includes performing abortions. Likewise there are Buddhist women who get abortions on themselves and generate the karma from such actions. So in Buddhism anyone is free to do what they like. Nothing is forbidden in Buddhism. Whatever the precepts and practices we do as Buddhists come from our own initiative rather than the 'thou shalt not' concept. Catching fish for consumption, animal slaughter as well as asking for/performing abortions all generate bad karma. Individuals have the freedom to do that. But freedom to commit such actions is not the same as the freedom from the bad karma that is generated from such actions. The karma generated from such action will come into fruition either in the present life or in future lives.

It is not encouraged to shame or harass those who are in favor of abortion. It is best not to be judgmental about those who have different viewpoints. In Buddhism, we do not judge and condemn people based on their past actions, because we also have accumulated so much bad karma from our near-endless past lives. Those who do fishing or work as butchers should not be judged and condemned for the career choices they made. It is good to discourage such people from being involved in such livelihoods but at the same time it is not for us to judge and condemn.

We have to understand that women who have made the choice of abortions do so because they probably did not have any other choice. We have to generate feelings of compassion for such people given that they did that because of limited options as well as realising that they will be facing the ripening of their bad karma in this life or future lives whiles understanding that we may have done worse things than abortion in our past lives.

"Those born and to-be-born —
May all beings be at ease!"
Sn 1.8 Karaniya Metta Sutta

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