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Buddhism and Reproductive Rights.

What’s Buddhism got to say about abortion?

Buddhism believes that life begins at conception and views abortion as the taking a of human life, but rejects the idea of rights, as in “right-to-life,” or even rights to one’s own body. It also stops short of intervening in a woman’s decision. According to statement published by the Japanese-American Buddhist Churches of America: “It is the woman carrying the fetus, and no one else, who must in the end make this most difficult decision and live with it for the rest of her life. As Buddhists, we can only encourage her to make a decision that is both thoughtful and compassionate.” [link]

A standard Buddhist approach to the ethics involved in having or providing an abortion is not a black and white issue. Although the first precept to not take a life seems prohibitive. It is less of a prohibition and more a requirement to approach the isse with compassion, concern and wisdom born of experience and practice. While the decision to have an abortion may not be viewed as the most skillful action for a woman to take, imposing a strict code against that choice would be equally discouraged. We all stand on our karma. The only footing we have is provided by our actions and the results of them. Each of us has the right to make a choice concerning those actions.

There is a larger picture to view. A picture of circumstance, personal experience and cause and effect. A picture of karma. Events will manifest as causes leading up to a woman contemplating terminating a pregnancy and the effects will echo after. It is not a simple decision, not a single correspondence. It is layered and complex decision that will lay a foundation for future events and actions, both good and bad, skillful and unskillful but all equally pressing. All equally important. Each needing to be adressed with compassion and not guilt. Wisdom and not condemnation.

It is a choice born of compassion tempered by wisdom – made by one person, the woman carrying the fetus. Those choices will reverberate throughout her lifetime and I, as a Buddhist, believe that we should respect a person’s experience and karma enough to allow that choice, despite personal beliefs or concerns. Just a simple allowance to a person the right to be mindful of their motivation–to stare fear, attachment and circumstance in the eye so that wisdom, compassion and selflessness shine through…no matter the decision made.

The Diamond Sangha (led by the now deceased) Robert Aitken Roshi had the following statement in a version of their revised Mizuko koyo ceremony.

We gather today to express our love and support for (names of parents) and to say farewell to a child unborn, a bit of being we have named (name of child), who appeared just as we all do, from the undifferentiated mind, and who passed away after a few moments of flickering life, just as we all do.

In our culture, we place  great emphasis upon maintaining life, but truly death is not a fundamental matter, but an incident, another wave. Bassui Zenji speaks of it as clouds fading in the sky. Mind essence, Bassui says, is not subject to birth or death. It is neither being nor nothingness, neither emptiness nor form and color.

It is, as Yamada Koun Roshi has said, infinite emptiness, full of possibilities, at once altogether at rest and also charged with countless tendencies awaiting the fullness of karma. Here (name of child) is in complete repose, at one with the mystery that is our own birth and death, our own no-birth and no-death

Of importance to me is Aitken Roshi’s willingness to address and bear witness to the inherit difficulty and sadness of this choice rather than an issue of right or wrong. Accepting a sangha member’s decision and providing support and aid. It ain’t easy for Jizo to see the endless march of sadness and fear but he rescues with vigor and without discrimination. He plunges himself without thought of self to help those in need. Jizo is a image of hope to parents and to expected mothers he is an image of salvation. Salvation from guilt and concern, from fear and condemnation. Freedom from judgment and isolation. To awaken those qualities in our own actions is accept the choices one makes with care and concern. To view the karma of another with compassion, that is the action of a Bodhisattva.

This is not meant to be a piece on Buddhist apologetics. Nor is it in-depth examination on Buddhist ethics. It is a statement of how I view abortions through my experience and my practice. I would be curious where you stand. Please include your position in the comments or include some resources to help others.

Some resources:

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Kathy Skaggs Jul 29, 2011 3:08pm

Excellent article! One of the best I've seen on EJ lately. Thanks!

Christopher Spiewak Jul 29, 2011 12:57pm

I hope the "choice" always remains but I hope never again to be faced with the indescribable anguish of being unable to prevent that "choice" from occurring. Its a helpless agony to know your child is about to be eliminated, murdered, erased from existence, before ever taking their first breath. I have tremendous empathy for any woman facing the sadness and difficulty of this decision but for the men who are helpless to prevent it, my heart is with you.

kfreedain Mar 9, 2011 3:05pm

Excellent post, as always John. A few things I would like to make small points to:

“It is the woman carrying the fetus, and no one else, who must in the end make this most difficult decision and live with it for the rest of her life. As Buddhists, we can only encourage her to make a decision that is both thoughtful and compassionate.”

– while on the surface, this is mostly correct, I would venture to say that in some situations we have to consider the outlook of individual karma vs. shared karma.

"It is a choice born of compassion tempered by wisdom – made by one person, the woman carrying the fetus."

– final decision yes – I agree, but, again, certain situations may dictate that the corresponding party (the male involved) be an ear to listen to, and sometimes provide input towards the outlook on the decision. (Please note, I did NOT say the final decision – that, is hers. It is her body, and her final decision.) We need to be responsible for being there to support her, either way.

"To view the karma of another with compassion, that is the action of a Bodhisattva."

– to me, this statement is mostly true. But, if I was in this situation, I could not – as someone on the path of a Bodhisattva – consider it the karma of another. It is a shared karma between two individuals. I would say the law of cause and effect dictates that, even though we do not have the final decision, we share in the karma of that decision as we were partly responsible for the causes of that original action.

my two cents.
…joining palms
Kris

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John Pappas

John Pappas is a struggling Zen practitioner with a slight Vajrayana palate (but he won’t admit it) stumbling between the relative and absolute through the Buddhist Purgatory otherwise known as the Great Plains of South Dakota. Emerging writer, librarian and aspiring hungry ghost, John spews his skewed perception of the dharma all over his personal blog, Subtle Dharma Mouth Punch as well as on the ephemeral Elephant Journal and occasionally (while having no artistic ability to speak of) on Dharma/Arte. John also loves tacos, homebrew, yoginis and obscure Cthulhu references. You can follow him on twitter under the handle @zendustzendirt