Buddhism and abortion
Scriptural views and the monastic code
Inducing or otherwise causing an abortion is regarded as a serious matter in the monastic rules followed by both Theravada and Vajrayana monks; monks can be expelled for assisting a woman in procuring an abortion. Traditional sources do not recognize a distinction between early- and late-term abortion, but in Sri Lanka and Thailand the "moral stigma" associated with an abortion grows with the development of the fetus. While traditional sources do not seem to be aware of the possibility of abortion as relevant to the health of the mother, modern Buddhist teachers from many traditions- and abortion laws in many Buddhist countries- recognize a threat to the life or physical health of the mother as an acceptable justification for abortion as a practical matter, though it may still be seen as a deed with negative moral or karmic consequences.
Views on abortion vary a great deal between different regions, reflecting the influence of the various Buddhist traditions, as well as the influence of other religious and philosophical traditions and contact with Western thought.
Abortion is generally regarded very negatively among ethnic Tibetan Buddhists. Prior to the emergence of the Tibetan diaspora in the 1950s, Tibetans do not seem to have been familiar with abortion for reasons of medical necessity, and, facing little population pressure, saw little reason to engage in what they saw as the destruction of innocent life. Though no systematic information is available, abortion appears to be very rare among exiled Tibetans living in areas where abortion is legal. Tibetan Buddhists believe that a person who has had an abortion should be treated compassionately, and guided to atone for the negative act through appropriate good deeds and religious practices; these acts are aimed at improving the karmic outcome for both the mother and the aborted fetus, but authorities warn that they will not be effective if one has undertaken an abortion while planning to 'negate' it by atoning for it later. The Dalai Lama has said that abortion is "negative," but there are exceptions. He said, "I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance."
Laws and views on abortion vary greatly in Theravada Buddhist nations. Attitudes and laws in Thailand are generally more liberal than in Sri Lanka. While abortion is still viewed as negative in Burma (Myanmar), it is allegedly also employed with some frequency to prevent out-of-wedlock births. Regarding attitudes towards abortion in Thailand, Peter Harvey notes:
...abortion is discussed not in the language of rights – to life or choice – but of ‘benefit and harm, with the intent of relieving as much human suffering in all its states, stages and situations as circumstances allow’, with an emphasis on reducing the circumstances leading women to feel that they need to have an abortion.
In November 2010, the issue of abortion and Buddhism in Thailand was thrust onto the front pages after 2000 fetuses were discovered stored at a temple in Bangkok. Abortion remains illegal in the country except in cases of rape or risk to the woman's health. Following the scandal, leading politicians and monks spoke out to reaffirm their opposition to more liberalised abortion laws. Phramaha Vudhijaya Vajiramedhi was unequivocal: "In [the] Buddhist view, both having an abortion and performing an abortion amount to murder. Those involved in abortions will face distress in both this life and the next because their sins will follow them." Prime Minister Abhisit announced a crackdown on illegal abortion clinics and refused calls to change the law, saying that current laws were "good enough."
Peter Harvey relates attitudes towards abortion in Burma to Melford Spiro's observation that Buddhists in Burma recognize a clear distinction between what may be regarded as 'ultimate good' in a religious sense and what is a 'worldly good' or utilitarian act. Despite the prevalence of illegal abortions in Burma due to economic difficulty, many Buddhists consider it against their religious beliefs. A 1995 survey on women in Burma showed that 99% thought abortion was against their religious beliefs.
Buddhists in Japan are said to be more tolerant of abortion than those who live elsewhere. In Japan, women sometimes participate in the Shinto-Buddhist ritual of mizuko kuyō (水子供養 — lit. 'fetus memorial service') after an induced abortion or an abortion as the result of a miscarriage.
Similarly, in Taiwan women sometimes pray to appease ghosts of aborted fetuses and assuage feelings of guilt due to having an abortion; this type of ritual is called yingling gongyang. The modern practice emerged in the mid-1970s and grew significantly in popularity in the 1980s, particularly following the full legalization of abortion in 1985. It draws both from traditional antecedents dating back to the Han dynasty, and the Japanese practice. These modern practices emerged in the context of demographic change associated with modernization – rising population, urbanization, and decreasing family size – together with changing attitudes towards sexuality, which occurred first in Japan, and then in Taiwan, hence the similar response and Taiwan's taking inspiration from Japan.
- "Abortion: Buddhism." BBC Religion & Ethics. Retrieved January 15, 2008.
- Harvey, Peter. Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (2000). Cambridge University Press. pg. 311-20
- Harvey, Peter. Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (2000). Cambridge University Press. pg. 328-29
- Dreifus, Claudia. (November 28, 1993). "The Dalai Lama." The New York Times
- Harvey, Peter. Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (2000). Cambridge University Press. pg. 329-32
- "Abortion reform is up against Buddhism in Thailand." The Guardian Comment is Free. Published November 25, 2010.
- Ba-Thike, Katherine (1997). "Abortion: A Public Health Problem in Myanmar". Reproductive Health Matters. Reproductive Health Matters. 5 (9): 94–100. JSTOR 3775140. doi:10.1016/s0968-8080(97)90010-0.
- Barnhart, Michael G. (1995). Buddhism and the Morality of Abortion Archived December 12, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 5. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
- Human Flower Project. Mizuko Jizo, Retrieved on April 29, 2009.
- Moskowitz, Marc L. (2001). The Haunting Fetus: Abortion, Sexuality, and the Spirit World in Taiwan. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-82482428-0.
- Winterton, Bradley (2001-08-12). "Appeasing the ghosts of the unborn". Taipei Times. Retrieved 2012-10-14.
- Charles B. Jones, Review of Moskowitz, Marc L., The Haunting Fetus: Abortion, Sexuality, and the Spirit World in Taiwan. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. August, 2002.
- Shih, Fang-Long (September 2002). "Review of The Haunting Fetus: Abortion, Sexuality, and the Spirit World in Taiwan". The China Quarterly (171): 765–767. JSTOR 4618793.