Buddhism and Reproductive Rights.

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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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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

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anonymous Jul 29, 2011 3:08pm

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

anonymous 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.

anonymous 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

anonymous Mar 7, 2011 2:27pm

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anonymous Mar 7, 2011 11:34am

This is such a difficult and nuanced issue. I appreciate reading the Buddhist perspective. As a longtime Buddhist practitioner, I've not been clear—until now—what Buddhist thought would be on this. I, too, feel that reducing the number of abortions would be a positive thing. I'm going to veer into the political realm here. I believe that until we as a culture embrace and promote real birth control education and resources to all people, safe, legal abortions will need to be available. Also, until we as a culture figure out realistic ways to support all the beings who will be born as a result of a ban on abortion—including those born with special and sometimes debilitating needs—safe, legal abortions must be available. Unfortunately, in these times the political winds seem to be blowing the opposite direction.

I do not know anyone who made the decision to abort lightly. I know women who still feel remorse for abortions they had decades ago, despite the fact that they knew their decision was the wisest choice for everyone concerned. Thank you for acknowledging this and articulating it so beautifully.

Bob Weisenberg Mar 7, 2011 9:01am

Thanks, John. Great education.

Bob W.
Yoga Editor

anonymous Mar 7, 2011 7:30am


I greatly appreciate the honesty with this post.

We like to think, that when our partner becomes pregnant we have some say in the matter. While to an extent I think we have an opinion, the overall decision is to be made by the woman. It is her body and he mind that is being affected directly.

I believe life is something to be protected, whether that be the mother to be, or the child to be. The choices we make are not easy sometimes, but done in a manner that is compassionate and caring always wins out in the end.

anonymous Mar 7, 2011 6:07am

I was recently talking with one of my good friends, and the subject of abortion came up. We were both raised in very liberal families, where it was made clear if we became pregnant before we were ready, we would not keep it. We did not want to be one of those woman who had to drop out of high school or college to raise a child, damaging our own lives and those of our child's.

Now that we are both out of college, we had a moment where we looked at each other and said, "Woah, we are old enough to have babies. If had an unplanned pregnancy, we would go through with it and raise it."

I think just having the mindset that you are not able to effectively raise a child, and knowing that you would not keep it, without any thought or compassion, is a strike in the favor of being able to maturely deal with this event and show compassion to this thing you were not ready for.

I risk being vilified here for being so honest, but I think I reflect the mindset of many woman growing up today.

anonymous Mar 6, 2011 8:22pm

Thank you for such a "thought-full" piece. I noticed you referred to the "women" having to make the choice. Having grown up in a neglected, unstable home with two mentally I'll parents and no immediate family nearby I looked for love to fill the emptiness that consumed me more than hunger. Still a child in essence, a young teen and not knowing sex didn't mean love I became pregnant not once but twice. Not one abortion but two. How I hated myself to the point that I decided taking my own life was what I deserved. I can only say that it was divine intervention in the form of a friends all-night talk with me that kept me from swallowing that whole bottle of pills. Even now as I type this I haven't come to terms with that part of my past. Many years of hard work in therapy have enlightened me and allowed me to let go of much of the pain caused at what should have been a time of innocence and joy. What still haunts me are those abortions as I triy over and over to make peace with that part of the past. It is my darkest. Perhaps this is the punishment, the karma, I pay for in eternity.

    John Pappas Mar 6, 2011 8:29pm

    I am more familiar with the situation you describe than I would ever want to delve into. Perhaps it is punishment. Perhaps not. There is no way to tell. One can only deal with the effects in an open and honest manner. While men as myself will never really understand the karma involved, I think we can have similar events in our lives where we learn, sometimes too late that our actions can have unseen results.

    Thank you for your comment and I wish you well in your recovery.

anonymous Mar 6, 2011 7:32pm

Interesting article about a perspective most don't consider (Buddhism). I respectfully disagree about life and conception, but I applaud the idea that women are, in fact, capable of making compassionate and appropriate choices for themselves, based upon their individual experience and circumstance. If only all so-called pro-life ideologies could be so gracious.

    anonymous Mar 6, 2011 7:44pm

    I disagree with life at conception as well but I enjoy the Buddhist point of view of responsibility at and after conception. We are responsible for our karma. We are responsible for what actions we take and how they effect others. It is a wonderful and heavy responsibility but not one that I wish to take away from a pregnant woman.

    What I presented was what I found to be the usual Buddhist take on abortion and what my personal view is.


anonymous Mar 6, 2011 6:37pm

Ed, are you sure that your friend's fetus was diagnosed with fibromyalgia? I believe you must be mistaken. I thought that there were no definitive tests for that illness.

Other than that I humbly agreed with your response.

I also liked the article. I found it loving, respectful, thoughtful, compassionate, and well-written.

    anonymous Mar 6, 2011 6:43pm

    Yes, I’m pretty sure. When the fetus has a hole in his back, exposing the cord. They really never know how bad or well off the baby will be…I’m sorry! It’s Spina bifida.

anonymous Mar 6, 2011 6:28pm

Thank you for posting this. I find abortion to be one of the most difficult issues we face as people and as a rule-of-law society. I struggle to understand the complexities between life and death, believing that we are souls from conception but understanding and agreeing that there is a choice involved. I am grateful for this nuanced view, respecting the spectrum, as opposed to the more common white and black approach that results in so much turmoil in the world. Again, thank you.

    John Pappas Mar 6, 2011 7:08pm

    You are welcome. I am glad you found my view nuanced and open. I hope that it remains that way.


anonymous Mar 6, 2011 6:11pm

Timely. Well done. Again…

    John Pappas Mar 6, 2011 7:08pm

    Appreciated. Thank you. Again…

anonymous Mar 6, 2011 5:58pm

A friend of mine, who I assume is a conservative (pro-life), got handed the news that her fetus has fibromyalgia. She was told this rather early in her pregnancy. She has a blog and often shares very personal things. So she asked everyone if she should have it or not. She was emotionally distraught with this question so she asked everyone else for their opinion. I did not answer because I couldn’t come up with an answer. I had it wasn’t easy at all. Does her and her family go for it eventhough it would be tough emotionally & with time and money. Or is it too much a burden on the family and the new born to knowingly place it in this mass of suffering on day one? Which is the compassionate answer? It can’t always be life.

On a more social level, when dealing with the policies of choice, womans rights, etc. I think it more wise and compassionate policy is to keep the power of choice with women and not the state. Women will STILL have abortions. Everyone knows this. How will they get it? Would you stick your head in sand and pretend that it’s not happening in some back alley? Imagine the horrors of that scene. That is not very wise. Let’s collectively agree that we need to limit the amount of abortions and move from there. Maybe we can use wisdom and compassion to eliminate unnecessary abortions in society as a whole. But banning them by making them illegal is not going to do it.

    John Pappas Mar 6, 2011 7:06pm

    Not only banning them but forcing women to also submit to "counseling" by untrained individuals. I apologize for moving into the political realm but in SD it may soon be mandatory for a woman that wants an abortion to submit to a Crisis Pregnancy Center (many of which are run by religious organizations) before being allowed an abortion procedure. No other medical procedure requires such a ridiculous requirement.

    Sorry. Off of my soapbox. I agree that abortions are not the flippantly easy decisions that many make them out to be. I have had similar discussions with friends contemplating have a pregnancy terminated and the best method I have found is staying silent as they work out their decision. No judgments, no spiritual advice. Just as the Engaged Buddhists would put it "bearing witness" to the emotions and concern and being open enough to allow them to work out their own karma to the best of their ability.