Buddhism, as with most other religions and spiritual traditions around the world, do not generally approve of killing. The Buddhist teaching consists of a series of guidelines that the follower is expected to follow in order to achieve the ultimate aim, which is Liberation or nirvāna. An important aspect of the practice is that one refrains from killing sentient animals. This, on the surface, seems to imply that abortion goes against the teaching of Buddhism. However, Buddhism is not only a purely spiritual religion in the sense that it deals exclusively with spiritual matters and not mundane ones. It is not expected that all adherents of Buddhism become arahants or those who become Liberated from the cycle of births and rebirths in their own lifetimes, and more mundane moral teachings play a large role in all Buddhist societies. Nonetheless, as for the content of these more mundane moral teachings it is largely up to the members of the society themselves to decide, as long as the decision does not conflict with the basic tenets of Buddhism itself. My argument in this paper is that in order to live relatively peacefully in a particular concrete social setting, perhaps abortion needs to be allowed. This does not mean that Buddhism allows abortion, but it means that, in the specific social circumstances that we find ourselves in, abortion performed by medical professionals in a modern and hygienic setting may be needed. On the one hand, this goes against the purely spiritual teaching of Buddhism, but on the other hand, it is also in accordance with the tendency of Buddhism to leave social issues to the people to decide within certain limits. If they think that some form of abortion is best for a particular type of society, one that they prefer, then so long as this does not violate the very basic orientation of Buddhism itself, it is up to them to do so while still being good Buddhists. The challenge certainly lies in how to reconcile the two.
Abortion is one of the most controversial issues not only in academic bioethics but also in the world outside. The issue has given rise to fierce polarization and debates which can be found not only in the west but also increasingly elsewhere. In the US it is well known to have become a hot political issue which can make or break a candidate for a political office. The Buddhist world is not immune to these debates either. In this chapter we look at the general position of Buddhism on abortion. As is the case with all other major religious traditions of the world, Buddhism encompasses a large variety within its fold, making any attempt to summarize it a difficult task. Nonetheless, I shall attempt to do just that and will present a general picture of what Buddhism has to say on the issue. A distinctive characteristic of Buddhism, perhaps, (which could well be shared by some other religions) is that it is highly adaptable. Buddhism tends to adapt itself to whatever cultures and practices it finds itself in, as long as its core teaching is not threatened In its original place in India, Buddhism has very much the characteristics of an Indian religion, but in today’s more globalized and increasingly secularized world, Buddhism tends to assume those features of the modern world that we are familiar with, and the trend is mostly visible in the west, where Buddhism is a recent import. This tendency of being adaptable results in Buddhism being flexible on many social and ethical issues. I will show that one can find textual support for this point in the Buddhist text; however, it is to me not sufficiently appreciated by Buddhist scholars. This adapability and flexibility of Buddhism implies that, on the topic of abortion, Buddhism can follow whatever agreement or consensus there might be on the issue. This means that we need to find an independent set of argument on the moral value of abortion, argument that is actually intended to persuade members of the society one is a part of. All things here depend on the doctrine of the Skillful Means (upāya), where any means can be used and can be equally good if they equally succeed at bringing people to realize the core teaching and thus eventually to arrive at the final Goal.
Having laid out this methodological issue, I then proceed in the chapter to provide a view on abortion which I believe does not conflict with the core message of Buddhism. I argue that in the modern world with the modern way of life and modern values with which people in the west are familiar, abortion cannot be avoided in certain cases, and it would be best to provide women with safe and hygienic abortion rather than forcing them to go underground. In the eyes of the Buddhist allowing the women to have abortion in this way is less than ideal. In the ideal world there would never arise a chance for the woman to have to have an abortion. After all, the first precept of the familiar Five Precepts of a Buddhist says, “I undertake the practice of refraining from killing sentient beings.” The precept takes form of a vow, which one makes in order to promise to oneself not to do this or that as a step in training oneself so that one eventually arrives at the Goal, which is liberation of oneself from samsara, or the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Here it suffices to note at an outset that, having said this, I do not intend Buddhism to be in favor of abortion. The point I am making is that in certain conditions it would be preferable for the woman to have a choice available to her rather than not. In these social and historical conditions having this choice open to the woman would be better for her and also everyone else. This does not only follow the principle of the Skillful Means as I said earlier, but it is also in accordance with one of the most central aspects of the Buddhist teachings, that of compassion. By allowing the woman a choice to have a safe and free abortion, society is performing an act of compassion toward her, as it reduces her suffering as well as the general suffering that would befall the society too.
Definition and Conceptual Clarification
Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. This means that Buddhism recognizes no supreme God who is the creator of all things and is the ultimate source of morality. Furthermore, Buddhism is also different from polytheistic religions such as Hinduism in that, even though Buddhism recognizes the existence of numerous gods, these gods are merely beings who are wandering around in samsara and are not the source of morality or the creators of all things as in Hinduism. Instead of God Buddhism recognizes the existence of a supreme law that governs all aspects of nature. This law is the source of normativity in morality. It is part of nature itself and is wholly outside of time, having no origin or end. Basically speaking, the content of the supreme law is all things happen as a result of causes and conditions. In Buddhist terminology, a cause is something that is changed into something else. Thus when milk is turned into cheese, it is said that milk is the cause of cheese. On the other hand, conditions are those that need to obtain in order for the cause to transform itself. For example, certain kinds of microbes need to be there in order for milk to turn to cheese; otherwise the transformation would not take place. Since Buddhism recognizes no supreme God, no one creates the Supreme Law.
Some say that this Law is the Law of Karma. This is only partly correct because the Law of Karma concerns only action, which creates its chain of consequences. However, action can be performed only by a sentient being capable of having intentions. Thus, the Law of Karma is only a subset of the Supreme Law, which is concerned with the relation of cause and effect for all things. The text says “Because of this, that arises.” So the idea is that nothing arises without a prior cause, and this extends both ways into the infinity of the past and the future. In fact time itself is also subject to the Law of Cause and Effect (not only of karma which is about human action only), as its existence also depends on causes and conditions.
The goal of the teaching of Buddhism is to help the practitioner become free from the clutch of samsara, or the cycle of life, death and rebirth. According to this familiar doctrine, one’s lifetime is only one among a countless number of lifetimes that one endures when one wanders around and around in samsara. To be free from samsara is known as to achieve Nirvāna, namely the state of complete and perfect freedom where one does not have to wander around in samsara again. To be a Buddhist, then, means one practices so as finally to achieve Nirvāna; once that is achieved, it is said in the texts that one has completed one’s task; there are no more tasks to do of this kind. The way toward achieving the Liberation is laid out in three main aspects, namely moral practice (sila), concentration or meditation (samādhi), and wisdom (paññā). In the first stage one takes a vow which guides one along on the correct path. For example, one takes up a vow of not killing a sentient being because killing creates a wave of negative energy around oneself which is a considerable impediment against Liberation. Then in the second stage one trains one’s own mind through meditation. The mind is stilled and not distracted by external factors. The text says that the process is comparable to letting cloudy water set still so that the dirt falls to the bottom, leaving the water clear and pure. This clear and pure mind is necessary for achieving the last stage, wisdom, which is capable of cutting through ignorance thereby arriving at full understanding and Liberation. What concerns us here in this chapter is naturally the first step, that of moral practice. In a nutshell, making a vow to oneself not to kill any animals is a key ingredient in practicing compassion, an essential quality for Liberation. However, when necessity arises in such a way that killing in some form is not avoidable, Buddhism, being a flexible religion, would set no rigid rules against doing what is beneficial and necessary in certain circumstances.
The vast teachings of Buddhism could be summed up in a few words, namely to avoid committing unwholesome action, to do wholesome action and to purify the mind. An action is “wholesome” or “unwholesome” depending whether that action leads to the final Goal or not. Action that causes harm to oneself or to others would be generally unwholesome, and the action that does the opposite would be wholesome. Thus giving and helping others would generally be considered to be wholesome; however, there is an exception. If the act of helping others is done with an impure motivation, for example, with the motivation of gaining fame for oneself, then the action is not fully wholesome. In Buddhism the intention is of paramount importance. The same kind of action can be wholesome or not depending on the intention alone.
Thus, Buddhism views normative questions in a purely teleological and naturalistic term. That is, the final arbiter of the value of action is whether and how well the action leads to nirvāna, and it is naturalistic in the sense that no supernatural beings are involved in this process. Achieving nirvāna is completely an individual effort of the practitioner. Having faith in the Buddha and praying to him is of some help because it calms the mind of the practitioner and provides him with confidence, but in the end it is the practitioner herself who is responsible. This is one of the strongest contrasts between Buddhism and the theistic religions such as Christianity or Islam, where salvation depends ultimately on God’s grace or at least on being faithful. Thus, Buddhism does not view questions in ethics in the same way as the theistic religions. For the Buddhists, the question of what makes an action right or wrong (in the soteriological sense) is solely the matter of whether it leads to the Goal or not; however, in the West one undertakes the investigation into the theoretical question concerning the source of normativity independently of whether the action leads to the desired Goal or not. In other words, Buddhism always assumes that the goal of attaining nirvāna is the only goal worthy of making an effort to realize; whereas in the West there are debates as to which goal is the worthy one or even whether an ethics actually needs a goal to begin with (such as in Kantian ethics). This view in Buddhism has led some scholars, such as Damien Keown, to claim that Buddhism does not actually have an ethics (Keown, 2005, pp 27-28). This is a startling claim from one whose reputation rests on the face that he is a very well-known scholar of Buddhist ethics. In Keown’s view, the fact that there is no or very little discussion in Buddhism on the theoretical nature of ethical norms shows that when we talk about “Buddhist ethics” in the context of the modern West, one always puts in one’s interpretation, as if Buddhism is contributing an original position in the ongoing debate among philosophers in the West.
Another point that I have to add here in this section is that Buddhism is a highly adaptable religion. This point will be crucial for my argument that abortion is not an entirely black and white issue. In the Mahāyāna tradition there is the argument of Nagarjuna to the effect that what is said directly is subservient to the true realization of ultimate reality. The issue is highly complex and there is no space to discuss this in full here. But the point is that for Nāgārjuna the truth of a statement is not sufficient to help one directly arrive at the Ultimate Truth, so to speak, of nirvāna. Nāgārjuna concludes his major work, Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Nāgārjuna, 1995), that one should “relinquish all views” in order to arrive at the final stage of realization. One could claim that for Nāgārjuna all statements are not entirely true, but another interpretation would be that all views, i.e., all uses of language, would be equally useful if they succeed in bringing the learner to see the ineffable Truth in her own way. That is just another way of putting the doctrine of upāya or skillful means. The point I am making is that if this is the case, then the ultimate realization of the Final Goal is more important than any content of any statement. This is a very sensitive point in Buddhism and one has always to bear in mind that the final seeing of the Goal cannot be put directly and exhaustively in words. Moreover, one can also find support for this view in the Theravāda texts. In a sutta one disciple of the Buddha had trouble meditating and progressing along the Path, the Buddha asked him what he did before he entered the order, and he replied that he was a musician, playing the lyre. The Buddha then told him that meditation was just like playing a lyre—if the strings were too tight then they would break, but if they are too lax, then there would be no sound. The monk then applied the Buddha’s advice to his practice and eventually arrived at the Goal (The Book of the Disciplines, 1951, p. 240). And for monks with other backgrounds the Buddha then always adapted his teaching and advice accordingly. The point, then, is that the pointer could be anything, but it works as long as it succeeds in pointing the practitioners on the correct path.
Ethical considerations could also be regarded as such skillful means. When Buddhism is planted in another culture, elements of that culture could be adapted in such a way that they serve to point to the Way too. Hence, in an environments where abortion has become a necessity for a certain way of life, there has to be a weighing of benefits: If by forbidding any act of abortion it would be harder for members of that society to live their lives in a way that fits with the goals and values of that society than allowing it to a certain degree, then it would be more prudent to allow it. The values and goals mentioned here naturally include those that provide women with power and equality characteristic of our modern society. If those are impaired as a result of a total banning of abortion, then it would be more advisable to open up some space where abortion is allowed.
Buddhist Perspective on Abortion
Most scholars of Buddhist ethics hold that Buddhism in general is opposed to abortion. Damien Keown, for example, holds that the First Precept of Buddhism means that abortion is morally wrong (Keown, 1995; also Keown, 2005, p. 86). As it is believed that life begins at fertilization, abortion is always wrong in this view (Keown, 2005, pp. 84-85). Keown also lists a number of ‘pro-choice’ Buddhist argument, such as one relying on the notion of the Five Aggregates and the status of the person. The idea, roughly, is that a person is made up of “aggregates”, or skandhas, and as these aggregates do not accrue to the person at the same time, there is a time at which the embryo does not have all the characteristics sufficient for being a person. Moreover, the idea of rebirth, according to Keown, affords some pro-choice scholars to claim that abortion is permissible in Buddhism during an early stage of development because the embryo still has not become a new person, but instead it is still carrying karmic traces of the previous person in the previous lifetime (Keown, 2005, pp. 89-91). Moreover, a number of bioethicists, such as William LaFleur (1992), claim that in Japan the attitude toward abortion is more liberal, as in certain circumstances it is necessary to have an abortion. Barnhart starts from this and argues that in Buddhism there does not have to be an equation of the fetus and embryo (Barnhart, 1998, p. 293). The position of LaFleur and Barnhart is rather similar to the one advanced here in the paper. My emphasis, which is not in either LaFleur or Barnhart, is on the flexibility and adaptability of Buddhism when it is implanted in a foreign soil and especially when the time surrounding it inevitably changes. It is not the case that ending the life of the fetus is free from being morally wrong at all according to Buddhism; on the contrary, the perpetrator incurs rather serious karmic consequences as a result of doing so. Nonetheless, the negative karmic consequences of performing an abortion, in certain circumstances, could be outweighed by those incurred by not doing it, especially when the well-being of the woman is in question as well as wider social repercussions. The adaptability of Buddhism, its willingness to adopt the mores of any social milieu it finds itself in so long as doing so does not conflict with the core teachings, contribute to Buddhism opening up a space within which abortion is permissible to a certain degree.
A rather superficial look at Buddhism would seem to show that the religion has a stance against all acts of abortion simply because abortion involves ending the life of a sentient being, that of the human fetus. I have said earlier in the chapter that one of the pillars of Buddhist practice is sila, or taking moral vows. These are collected in sets of precepts and number one in these precepts is the vow one takes not to end the life of a sentient being; this is the first step in practicing loving-kindness and compassion, which is necessary for the practice. Abortion obviously involves killing; it certainly involves harming another creature, depriving it of a chance to continue living. As such it runs directly against both the precept and the practice of loving-kindness and compassion. It seems, then, that Buddhism has every reason to condemn abortion. In Buddhist terms, one who commits abortion would be committing a grievous sin, incurring seriously bad karma which will reflect strong negative consequences in the life of the perpetrator. And since such negative consequences run in the opposite direction from realizing the Goal, then abortion appears to be clearly wrong for Buddhism.
The kind of Buddhism I discuss in this chapter is intended to cover all schools of the religion. Scholars usually emphasize the differences between the Theravāda and the Mahāyāna traditions. Keown, for example, emphasizes that the two traditions even have two distinct systems of ethics (See, for example, Keown’s discussion of abortion in Keown, 1996, pp. 100-102, and in Barnhart, 1998). The difference between the two main traditions here is not the same as the difference, say, between Catholicism and Protestantism in Christianity. There are irreconcilable differences in the doctrines of the two Christian sects, and Protestantism originated as a protest against the former. In other words the identity of Protestantism is achieved through the distancing of itself from Catholicism. The Mahāyāna tradition, on the other hand, being the later tradition, did not see itself as altogether distinct from the earlier tradition. On the contrary the Mahāyāna could be more accurately seen as a collection of a series of increments from the early tradition, adding layers and layers of additional practices and supplemental doctrines time goes by, but never refuting the core teaching of the Buddha himself. In fact, the core doctrines of the Mahāyāna tradition, the bodhisattva ideal, can be seen within the Theravāda itself, and the ideal of the arahat, so central to the Theravādins, is also recognized as an ideal worthy of respect by the Mahāyāna adherents. This shows that there is no conflict between the two traditions on the core teachings, namely those that can be found in the original canon itself. Since my analysis of Buddhism in the chapter is focused only on the core teaching in this sense, the analysis is thus applicable to both traditions.
Nonetheless, this is not the whole issue. The judgment that abortion is entirely wrong is usually done outside of any context. Assessments of ethical value, including those done from within a religious tradition, tend to focus only on the specific action itself and insufficient attention tends to be paid to the contextual relations that the action always has with the other elements within the society.. In the case of abortion, we can certainly find a whole host of connections that it bears with these other factors. For one thing, abortion is closely related to gender issues. After all, only women can have an abortion. In many cases, the question whether abortion is right or wrong tends to be mixed up with the question of women’s status in society. In a society where women enjoy a status relatively equal to men, abortion happens to be less of an issue, since the women have more power to control their reproductive choices. In a society where women and men are equal, women tend to have the power to influence the passing of legislation that promotes their health and their ability to control what happens to their bodies. Moreover, abortion is also closely related to the status of women as she appears in public. In many traditional societies, pregnancy out of wedlock brings shame not only to the woman herself, but also to her family. This shows that abortion is not an issue for the woman alone but also a serious issue for the whole family or the whole clan. As a consequence, evaluating the moral value of abortion needs also to take these related factors into account. Most ethical judgments on abortion, however, tend to focus on the act itself as if it happened in a vacuum. Scholars and philosophers debate whether the fetus is a person, at what age of gestation the fetus should be considered to have a soul, at what age the fetus has a viable nervous system, and so on. Or they consider whether the right of the mother trump over the right of the fetus, whether the mother has a choice to control her body and what is happening inside. These considerations focus exclusively on the fetus and the woman, but not on how both the woman and the fetus are related to the wider social and cultural contexts. A teenage girl who is pregnant and is contemplating whether to have an abortion is not alone in the world. She has her parents, her friends, her teachers and all others forming a complex web of relationships around her. One of the key teachings of Buddhism is that of interdependence of all things, meaning that all things are interconnected with one another, so much so that the very identity of a thing cannot be ascertained without its relation to all other things. If that is the case, then to evaluate the moral value of abortion cannot be done by focusing on the fetus and the mother alone, but the wider social context needs essentially to be taken into consideration too.
This means that even though abortion involves ending a life, thus making the act technically a wrong one in Buddhism, there could be cases where not performing an abortion would be even more wrong than doing it. Since everything is interconnected with one another, performing the abortion might well be the “lesser evil” that a society needs to take in order to avoid a bigger one. Here I am in broad agreement with the philosopher Somparn Promta, who argues for this point (Promta, B.E. 2535) If this is so, then Buddhism would suggest that the lesser evil be chosen. For example, a woman has to decide whether to have an abortion or not. If she decides not to do so, her life would be miserable for a long time because she would have to raise the child alone by herself (suppose that the father disappears and is not around to help her). She might have to drop out of school and find some low paying job to help herself and her child. Society has to pay for her welfare costs, as well as those of the baby. She may bring shame to her family, causing much distress to her parents and their loss of status within their own social circles. In this kind of situation, it would be more advisable for the woman to do the abortion. After all, the very Buddhist principle of compassion would appear to demand it. (Compassion, or karunā, is the desire that suffering sentient beings be completely relieved of their suffering, as well as the action to do something to relieve those sufferings.) Furthermore, the decision to have an abortion should be with the woman herself. Furthermore, many women in Thailand do perform Buddhist rituals dedicating merit to the aborted fetus after they have had an abortion. This is due to the belief that performing an abortion incurs serious karmic consequences on the part of the women and the rituals are designed to alleviate them. This seems to be the practice of Buddhist women in other countries too, such as Japan.
In short, then, if by refraining from having an abortion one would cause more harm than good, then according to Buddhism one should do the abortion. However, one has to realize that this does not absolve the one who decides to have the abortion, as well as the doctor who does perform the act, from negative karmic consequences. There will be bound to be such negative consequences because after all abortion involves greatly harming the fetus, in fact killing it outright. However, if not doing the abortion would cause even greater negative karmas and sufferings, then one has to choose the lesser evil. In the case of the woman mentioned earlier whose family would have to endure a lot of shame, the suffering of all the members in her family circle and her loss of a chance for an education would cause more harm than for her to have an abortion early on. In this case, then, Buddhism would suggest that one perform the abortion.
We can also look at the attitude of Buddhism from another perspective. As I just mentioned earlier, one of the most important concepts in the Buddhist teaching is that of compassion. The word ‘compassion’ is a usual English translation of Sanskrit karuna, which means the wish to eliminate sufferings in sentient beings and the action that follows the wish. One who is compassionate would feel a strong empathy toward those who are suffering, as if she is suffering the same pain herself, and will do everything within her power to help alleviate and eliminate the root cause of that suffering. Thus, if the fact of the matter is that there would be more suffering if the woman were forbidden to do an abortion than otherwise, then the principle of compassion would say that aborting the fetus would be the more compassionate act. (This, by the way, is not only Mahāyāna thinking, as is suggested by some scholars, but compassion lies at the core of Buddhism itself.) Certainly, saying something like this is controversial. How could it be that aborting a fetus is the more compassionate act? However, in aborting the fetus it is only the fetus who “suffers.” It might be said that the fetus is born in a wrong place and at a wrong time. Clearly it does have an interest, as every sentient being has an interest in living and going on living. However, if it is indeed the case that the suffering of all those around the woman, and the woman herself, is greater than that of the fetus, then abortion seems to be acceptable in Buddhism. This is, of course, an imperfect solution in an imperfect world.
In this section we explore some of the specific issues surrounding abortion. The general idea, as we have seen, is that Buddhism outwardly does not concern itself with how the actual living of a person should be organized. This is left to the discretion of the person herself and of her society. The only requirement is that, if one decides to take up the vow of walking the Buddhist path, one follows the guidelines laid out by the Buddha. These guidelines, however, put a lot of emphasis on individual practice; social and political arrangements are paid attention to only when they impede or promote individual practices.
Family planning: Buddhism does not have anything against this at all.
Contraceptives: Contrary to some other religions, notably Catholicism, Buddhism does not have anything to say about contraceptives in particular. The idea that contraceptives could be regarded as a unethical because it prevents potential life from being actualized does not occur in Buddhism because it recognizes that life begins with conception. This is shown in the Scripture where there are three necessary requirements for a new life to occur—the mother must be ovulating; the father has to engage in sexual intercourse and release the semen, and there must be a gandhabba, a soul waiting to be reborn. However, Buddhism does not believe in the soul in the same way as other religions; that is, it does not believe that the soul is an independent entity capable of existing by itself. On the contrary, whatever is “waiting to be reborn” according to the text could be seen as a result of some chains of events leading back to the karmic action of some person who has died earlier. In any case, for the sake of convenience I will refer to whatever is waiting to be reborn here as a soul.) Preventing the soul to be reborn through the use of contraceptives is not a cause for negative karma because by doing that one is merely preventing a possibility of a soul being reborn only. The soul is not harmed by being denied this particular channel of being reborn because its status as a soul, its integrity as a soul, is not harmed. If using contraceptives were to harm the soul, a couple who do not engage in sexual intercourse must be harming the soul too because not doing that prevents the soul from being reborn too. As a result, couples have to make love all the time without any pause because by letting up they deny a chance for the soul to be reborn. That, patently, is absurd.
Morning-after pills: The same argument that applies to contraceptives does apply to the morning-after pills also. Even though the intercourse results in contraception, the use of the pill does not cause any negative karma because at this stage the embryo is just a collection of a few cells, not enough to constitute a sentient being.
Request for abortion in case of rape, unwanted pregnancy, minors, late pregnancy, single woman, married woman: Since Buddhism allows for society a range of freedom to organize their own affairs as they see appropriate, request for abortion is acceptable to the religion as long as it is done to relieve the suffering of the mother and those who are involved. The suffering must be genuine, and not an excuse for merely getting rid of the fetus for convenience. Furthermore, since abortion invariably incurs negative karma, one has to remorseful and attempts to do good deeds so that one has in store positive karmas in order to alleviate the effect of the negative ones. Cases of rape show most clearly that the mother (the one who has been raped) suffers the most; hence in these cases abortion is always allowable and does not incur much negative karma. In general, if the mother suffers a great deal in case she has to carry the pregnancy then the more allowable abortion would be in the Buddhist’s eyes.
The role of the husband: In case of rape, this is obviously a non-issue, so is the case where the man disappears after the woman gets pregnant. In the case of married women, it is more nuanced. Ideally the couple should talk with each other and make the decision together. However, if the husband does not agree, the final decision should rest on the wife because it is her body that is at issue. Buddhism does not have anything to say about the role of the husband and wife and the question whether who should make the decision. What the Buddha has to say about this issue is only that husbands and wives should respect and honor each other. Moreover, as I have said earlier, Buddhism leaves these matters to the discretion of the people themselves, who have to make up their own ethical rules and their own laws. This is a key point in Buddhism, because the overall aim of the religion is that one becomes released from the bond of the cycle of births and rebirths, and ethical rules are justified in Buddhism when they are conducive to this goal. As for social and cultural matters, including the role of husbands and wives, usually the Buddha leaves it to the prevailing custom of the place. For example, the Buddha gives an advice to the ruling elites, or the Senate, of a state of Vajji, and also many advices to his friend Bimbisara who is a monarch. This shows that the Buddha is neutral as to which form of government is the best, and in fact early Buddhist teaching is silent on the issue, which means that it is up to the preference or the custom of the people themselves.
Author’s Reflection and Conclusion
Abortion is certainly a difficult and emotional issue. Ideally no rational person would agree that destroying another human being, even in the form of a zygote or an embryo, is something one should refrain from doing if one has a chance. However, we are not living in an ideal world, so the question about abortion comes up. Also ideally, the couple having sex with one another should do so out of love for each other; they should know full well that their action will lead to the possibility of having a baby, unless they have made a precaution. But many couples engage in sex act without taking any precaution—that is part of the non-ideal world too; hence the need for abortion.
Scholars in Buddhist ethics such as Keown and Barnhart seem to think that there is a hard and fast separation between the Theravāda and Mahāyāna traditions, and they seem to believe that the former is more conservative than the latter. What I have shown, on the contrary, is that the so-called liberal elements that they find in the Mahāyāna are also there in the Theravāda also. The reason why Theravāda countries such as Thailand have a very conservative legislation against abortion is not entirely due to the teaching of Buddhist per se, but to the complex web of historical and social relations that serve the interest of the patriarchal order rather than reflecting sincerely and accurately on the true Buddhist teaching. Japan, on the other hand, being more advanced society economically is thus more open toward abortion. In discussing ethical problems, especially those pertaining to Buddhism, one cannot isolate a problem from its social and cultural environments (See Keown, 1998 and LaFleur, 1994). After all a core teaching is that everything is interconnected, and this should mean in this context that a problem such as whether abortion is right or wrong is a complex one and cannot be answered by looking at the Scripture alone.
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