Buddhism on Abortion
And whatever monk should intentionally deprive a human being of life, or seek out (and utilize) an assassin, or praise the advantages of death, or (otherwise successfully) encourage death to another, saying, “Hey, man, what use to you is this evil, difficult life? Death would be better for you than life”—with such an idea in mind, with such an intent in mind, should he praise the advantages of death or encourage death to another in whatever ways, he also is excommunicated and no longer in communion. —Pārājika #3 (in other words, the third rule of monastic discipline entailing instantaneous excommunication)
Before wading into the politically incorrect issue of the official Buddhist attitude toward abortion (plus the attitude of every other major religious system that I know of), I suppose I should define the term “Buddhism.” By “Buddhism” I mean, for the purposes of this discussion, the earliest known form of Buddhism, which presumably comes closest to what the sage Gotama Buddha originally taught in 5th century BCE northern India. Thus we start with the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, by far the most conservative Buddhist school still in existence, still based upon ancient north Indian societal customs, and with its texts composed in an ancient northern Indian language. Then we ignore the texts that are more or less apocryphal and are not represented in most of the other ancient Indian schools, as determined by their extant texts preserved mostly in Chinese and Tibetan translations. The resulting core texts, as they are called, give us a pretty good idea of what Buddhism was like some one hundred years after the Buddha’s death, before the schisms began which divided the Buddhist system into different sects. Much of the content of these texts no doubt originates with the Buddha himself. Although this seems to limit the Buddhist perspective to an ancient Indian “Hinayana” one, I wouldn’t be surprised if all major schools of Buddhism, both those extinct and those still extant, are in agreement on the issue at hand. The core texts are included in the huge Mahayana Tripitaka also. I would guess that the attitude of Buddhism toward abortion is pretty much universal throughout all the many schools.
Which leads to the question at hand, namely: What is the official position of Buddhism towards the issue of abortion? And without beating around the bush, I will simply blurt out that the plain, unvarnished answer to that question is that abortion is murder. Not just unethical or wrong, but literal, actual murder of a human being. Now I suppose I should substantiate that claim with some orthodox evidence.
Fully ordained Buddhist monks are subject to four rules which, if any of the four is broken, entail instantaneous excommunication from the Sangha for life. The third of these Pārājika rules is the one quoted in translation above, which absolutely forbids a monk to deliberately kill another human being. Because these four rules are so important, the exact implications of them are discussed in great detail in the books of monastic discipline—the Sangha needs to be absolutely clear on whether a monk is really a monk, or is excommunicated for life. So in the ancient texts various scenarios are discussed to determine whether or not they entail the breaking of the rule. One of these scenarios is abortion. If a monk performs an abortion on a woman, even by giving her a miscarriage-inducing drug (which was the primary method for abortion of a fetus in ancient times), or if he helps her in any way to get an abortion, as by persuading her to have the abortion, making arrangements with a doctor, or helping to pay for it, then he is declared to be a murderer or an accessory to murder, and that’s it—he is excommunicated for life and no longer a monk.
This ancient Pali determination on abortion is found in some very old canonical commentarial literature, and not in the actual rule itself as quoted above; so western “progressive” Buddhists might claim that it is not authoritative, presumably coming from some ancient commentator and not from the Buddha himself; such arguments have been employed by western “progressives” with regard to a few other rules they don’t want to accept. But such an argument in this case is just untenable, as the Pārājika rules are claimed by orthodox tradition to be the most fundamental teachings of Buddhism. According to tradition, so long as the four Pārājika rules are extant, some form of genuine Buddhism is still in existence in this world, if only in vestigial form. Those four rules have been prophesied to be the last principles to survive of the Buddhist system, the Buddha-Sāsana. So the official, millennia-old definitions of what entails excommunication for murder are not going to be modified just because some uppity western people decide it ought to be changed, in order to be more compatible with their secular, ultraliberal political beliefs. Only a Great Council of the Sangha could possibly make such an important, fundamental change, and it’s extremely unlikely that the conservative Asian monks who preside over Buddhist Great Councils would be willing to do such a thing. Western politically correct lay Buddhists have somewhere in the neighborhood of zero authority over determining orthodox Theravada Buddhist dogma. And they certainly aren’t going to change the ancient texts in any universally acceptable way, or any way acceptable even to the majority of devout Buddhists.
From the traditional Buddhist point of view a human life begins at conception. One requisite for conception is the “spirit,” or karmic psychic momentum, of a being to be reborn; so even a fertilized ovum is more than just a biological organism, it’s already a human being in the spiritual sense. This would be roughly akin to a Christian belief that an immortal “soul” enters the embryo immediately upon its conception.
Thus another rule of monastic discipline states that no man may be ordained as a monk or bhikkhu until he is at least twenty years of age—but the age is not counted from birth, but from conception, with ten months considered in ancient times to be an adequate approximation. So a person who is nineteen years and two months of age by modern western reckoning would be considered twenty by the reckoning of the Indians of the ancient Ganges Valley who formulated the established system of Buddhist philosophy.
As far as I know, all major religious systems existing today have condemned abortion as a form of murder. With Christianity the argument tends to run along the lines of a human life being a divine gift, so that terminating it is a sin against God even if the embryo is too undeveloped to experience any suffering. Buddhism apparently has one of the strictest prohibitions on abortion, much as it has one of the most finely tuned ethical systems, particularly with regard to the taking of life. A Theravada monk isn’t allowed even to kill a plant (although the killing of plants or non-human animals breaks a less severe rule, and doesn’t entail excommunication, but requires only confession to expiate it).
Buddhist philosophy in this case also is in agreement with basic biological science—the reason why humans and other placental mammals develop a placenta during pregnancy is to isolate the developing embryo from the mother’s immune system, otherwise her body would reject it as foreign tissue. Pro-choice advocates insist upon a woman’s rights over her own body, but the embryo or fetus developing in her belly is not part of her own body; it has its own genetic code, let alone any individual karma or spirit or soul. This should not be controversial, but it is, because people think with their feelings at the expense of objectivity much of the time.
Nevertheless, women do have deep, inherent maternal instincts; and research has shown that women who have had abortions are much more prone to depression, anxiety, etc. than are women who have not undergone the procedure. Regardless of all the superficial justifications in the world, deep down women may easily bear a sense of having killed their own child. And in accordance with the intellectual weakness of subjectivity just mentioned, those feelings may not be pacified by easy justifications or liberal slogans.
BUT, just because something is unethical or immoral doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be positively illegal. In a secular society with separation of church and state, neither Buddhism’s nor Christianity’s nor any other religion’s decrees should be considered the law of the land just because they say they it should be. Many acts are unethical or immoral but are still allowed, sometimes even glorified, including killing the enemies of one’s country in time of war, not to mention hunting, fishing, swearing, getting stinking drunk, lying about the fish that got away, or hating one's neighbor. Besides, there are certainly cases in which abortion could be considered the lesser of two evils. But at the very least abortion should be limited to the earlier stages of fetal development, before the unborn baby begins to have some rudimentary experience of being alive. The new leftist drive for legal abortion right up to the moment of birth is utterly grotesque, especially when one considers that these same people claim the moral high ground. And abortion shouldn’t be “free” on demand, or rather socialized and paid for by the tax-paying masses. Furthermore, the dismembered human embryos derived from abortions should not be used to make food additives, a thoroughly dystopian scenario that is allegedly a reality now, or so I have read.
I suppose what is required is for some committee of experts on law and also on fetal development to declare on behalf of the federal government the exact time at which a human being is considered to be a human being endowed with inalienable rights. The Supreme Court might be able to do this, guided by the learning of medical experts…maybe. It certainly could not be trusted to politicians or committees appointed by politicians in today’s ragingly partisan climate, as the result would be totally, absolutely partisan—judgements from such a group would be based on the party politics of the group in power, not on ethics or empirical reality.
Getting back to Buddhism, or rather the modern western version of it, I wonder how many western people professing Buddhism can accept the core texts’ fundamental definition of murder, considering how ultraliberal most western Buddhists tend to be. Abortion on demand has become practically a basic tenet of liberal ethics, in America anyway. How many western Buddhists prefer their Dharma to be essentially ultraliberal progressivism with a little bit of filtered, processed essence of Buddhism added for flavoring? I'm conservatively guessing more than half.