Abortion in Buddhism

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There have been a lot of significant sources that indicates abortion has been disapproved of in the Buddhist tradition. Yet in the midst of this, abortion has been tolerated in Buddhist Japan and accommodated under exceptional circumstances by some modern Buddhists in the US. (1) Their defence was that prohibiting abortion are Theravādin and ancient. Japanese Buddhism as well as the traditions out of which a more lenient approach emerges are more recent and Mahāyāna traditions. In this essay, a look at this aspect will be looked at more closely in the Buddhist context. One of the strongest evidence against abortion emerges in Damien Keown's analysis of Buddhism's bioethical ramifications in the book Buddhism and Bioethics. (2)  Keown argues that the preponderance of the Buddhist traditon is overwhelmingly antiabortionist. In support, he develops two lines of argument. The first relies on rejection of abortion, in ancient Theravāda texts, which was regarded as the core of the tradition. The second argument is of his interpretation of these sources and their connection to the basic tenets of Buddhism regarding the nature of personal identity and the skandhas, karma and rebirth, life and death. One might, of course, argue that abortion in self-defense is acceptable. Keown seems to feel that killing in self-defense is not itself an example of taking life but pregnancy and its associated dangers present a wholly different kind of situation from that of self-defense. Hence, the question why such special exceptions to a general prohibition on abortion are acceptable remains unanswered. Keown argues that the First Precept and its prohibition against taking life is part of a much larger reverence for life, life being one of Buddhism's three basic goods -- life, wisdom and friendship. While respect for life is undeniable, the abortion issue usually hinges on whether the fetus is indeed a life in the relevant sense, and one could challenge either Buddhism or Keown on this point. Keown argues that a fertilized egg is a fully human being because the ingredient most essential to such a life is already present -- viññāṇa (in the Pali).  viññāṇa, usually translated as consciousness, is of course only one of five traditional components of a living being.  The other four are the following: form (the body), feeling, thought, and character or disposition. (4)  Keown's argument for treating viññāṇa as the most essential group is perhaps best stated in his discussion and rejection of sentience as the basic moral criterion for respect as a living being. In terms of a Buddhist defense of abortion, the main difficulty with Keown's analysis has to do with his understanding of the Buddhist view of life which subsumes abortion under the general heading of intentional killing.  Given my understanding of anatta, there is no reason to subscribe to Keown's understanding of the Buddhist view of human life.  For Keown, all biologically human life is normatively significant because it is animated by the descended gandhabba, thus conferring the singularity necessary to view it as ontologically individual.  However, given the distinction between the groups, I see no reason why a committed Buddhist can't hold that just because one has a body, form or rupa, one doesn't necessarily have a human life, especially one worthy of the strongest protection.  A human life, in the moral sense, starts unambiguously when all the skandhas are in place, and the Buddha as well as the early Buddhist scriptures leave room for a rather large number of interpretations as to exactly when such a condition occurs in the process of embryonic development.  It is suspected that much of Keown's enthusiasm for his interpretation stems from the ready parallels that may be drawn between the natural law tradition of Roman Catholicism and Buddhism. (4)  He compares the role of viññāṇa with that of the electricity in a computer in order to clarify the kind of constituting...
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