January 22 marks the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that declared abortion to be legal in the United States. Since that decision, over 50 million abortions have been legally performed in the U.S. Many Christians have labored to overturn this decision, pointing out that abortion is contrary to the teaching of God’s Word.
But are Christians alone in their understanding of abortion? Do other religions address this issue? For over a century, Eastern religions like Buddhism have gained increasing influence and favor in the West. Does Buddhism address abortion? In fact, Buddhist teaching specifically addresses the issue of abortion.
Traditional Buddhist Teaching on Abortion
One of the primary questions in the current debate concerns the beginning of human life—does life begin at conception, birth, or sometime in between? The Buddhist teaching of rebirth creates a slight twist on that question. Buddhists believe that an individual continually passes from one life to the next, making it difficult to determine when life begins.
However, Buddhist teaching does provide its own answer to the question of when a particular life for a human begins. Siddhartha Gautama, the man believed to have become the Buddha, taught that conception depended on three factors: (1) sexual intercourse, (2) a woman being in her fertile period, and (3) a gandharva (spirit of a deceased person seeking rebirth) being present and available. When the sperm, egg, and gandharva combine the human life has started, and these three combine at the point of conception.
Buddhism has five precepts which contain the most basic expression of Buddhism’s ethical requirements. They are compared to the Ten Commandments for Christianity or the Five Pillars of Islam and are voluntarily accepted by any person who becomes a Buddhist. The first of the precepts is to abstain from destroying life (both human and animal). Breaking this precept brings negative karmic consequences that lead to an unfavorable rebirth (as a lower animal or in hell).
Since the fetus is considered a sentient living being, abortion would be a violation of the first precept. Buddhist teaching and history support this conclusion. Gautama ruled on seven cases where monks were involved with abortions, and each time he treated them as he did other homicides—by expelling the monk from the monastic community, or sangha.
Buddhism focuses on both intention and result when considering the morality of a deed. One who destroys a life unintentionally or one who intends to destroy a life but is unsuccessful suffers less karmic consequence than one who intends to destroy a life and actually destroys it. Abortion necessarily includes the intention of taking a life, and almost always results in the destruction of that life. Thus, abortion is essentially always morally wrong in Buddhism.
Traditional Buddhist Teaching on Arguments for Abortion
How does Buddhism view the common arguments used to support abortions? Many argue that a woman has a right to choose what to do with her body. However, the teachings of Buddhism do not support this argument. First, the emphasis on an individual’s rights is foreign to the Buddhist teaching of the self. People do not truly possess their own bodies, for they are simply the result of past karmic action. Thus, they have no claim to owning their bodies. Further, the fetus is not a part of the woman’s body but is its own sentient being. Finally, the negative karmic results of the abortion are not in the best interest of the woman.
What if the fetus is deformed or handicapped? Buddhists believe that handicapped individuals can have meaningful lives. They also believe that the handicap is a result of past karmic fruit and should be lived out in the present life to help gain a better future life. Abortion would not only force the child to live out his karmic fruit in another life, but could create further karmic harm. The sudden death could create greater feelings of fear and insecurity and produce a less favorable rebirth.
What about the mental and physical health of the mother? Though the mental trauma associated with pregnancies resulting from rape may lead some Buddhists to allow for abortion, others would state that the emotional pain would not be enough to take the life of the fetus. The situation most likely to be an exception is when the life of the mother is at risk. Here, the taking of the fetus may be considered an act that is a necessary evil in order to protect the life of the mother. However, a mother who chooses to keep a baby born from rape or even to give her life in the hope of saving the baby would be following the Buddhist virtues of generosity and compassion and gaining positive karmic fruit.
Abortion in Buddhist Countries
Though traditional Buddhist teaching prohibits abortion, abortion is still high in many Buddhist countries. Abortion is illegal in Thailand, yet hundreds of thousands abortions occur each year. In 1981, 10% of pregnancies were ended by abortion. Other countries with large Buddhist populations have even higher abortion rates. Abortions end at least 22% of pregnancies in Japan, 24% in Korea and 43% in Vietnam.
Lessons for Christians from Abortion in Buddhism
Christians are not opposed to abortion based on Buddhist teaching but on biblical teaching. So what can we learn from this brief overview of Buddhism’s view of abortion?
First, the issue of abortion is not simply a struggle between modern culture and modern Christianity. Not only have Christians dealt with the issue for thousands of years, but other people have as well. (The teaching attributed to the Gautama is supposed to come from the fifth century B. C., but was likely written in the first century B. C.)
Second, not every objection to abortion has equal value nor should have equal support from Christians. Christians believe abortion is morally evil because it unjustly ends the life of a person made in the image of God. Buddhists believe abortion is morally evil because it violates a natural law that governs the universe (dharma), and violating that law brings negative results. A Christian cannot agree with a Buddhist who argues against an abortion because of the karmic fruit that will result. Though we may agree on the practical goal (prohibiting abortions) we must recognize we desire it for different reasons.
Third, the final solution to abortion is not convincing people that it is evil or forbidding its practice. As evidenced by abortion’s prevalence in largely Buddhist countries, the problem is not just a matter of understanding but also a matter of desire. People may know something is wrong, but if their wills are corrupt they will still choose what is wrong. Laws can and should be pursued to limit abortion, but the ultimate answer is not external legislation but radical transformation.
Finally, Christianity offers a better hope to those who have had an abortion. Buddhism teaches that you must and will pay for your action. You may not pay in the next life, but eventually you will experience the negative karmic fruit of your evil act. Christianity teaches that the action must and will be paid for, but Jesus offers to pay for it instead of you. Rather than living with the burden of guilt for the rest of your life, you can experience the freedom that only comes through God’s forgiveness.
“Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity” (Ps 32:2).
Florida, Robert. “Buddhism and Abortion.” In Contemporary Buddhist Ethics, ed. Damien Keown. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000.
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values, and Issues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Keown, Damien. Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Tachibana, S. The Ethics of Buddhism. Hong Kong: Curzon Press, 1926.