Saturday, 1 September 2012

Buddhism and Government Control Over Women's Reproductive Rights

I just had an interesting read from a BBC article on Buddhism and abortion. It seems there is no universal view from Buddhists, which is usually the case with many other things but not all things. Should any government force a woman to have a child? What do you think from a Buddhist perspective? How do we reconcile that those who denounce big government often believe in the role of government in reproductive rights? How does Buddhism, which universally promotes life and life giving things reconcile any single point of view on this issue to a coherent belief system?

Here is a link to the article to read before responding to the different points of view:

I am sure that a lot of use who do not consider ourselves Buddhist scholars, but yet lay practitioners, are curious about different Buddhist perspectives not coming from people deemed as official media spokespersons for such a diverse religion.

Sean Flanigan
Charlotte, NC


  1. I'd highly recommend Peter Harvey's Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, where I believe he deals with this at some length.

    In short, Buddhism is traditionally 'pro life'. A new life is created at conception (many Buddhists give their age starting at conception rather than birth). And as such, killing a fetus is taking a life, something that Buddhists see as harmful.

    Nonetheless, Buddhists are also basically tolerant with this issue as well. In Asia, several countries officially ban abortion (I believe Thailand being one of them), but the procedure is readily available - unlike in the US where bans have meant zero availability. In Japan, the Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha/Jizo is 'prayed to' by those who have abortions to go help the aborted being to ensure a better rebirth.

    In the West, convert Buddhists are largely pro-choice and may or may not have traditional views regarding the start of a new life.

  2. This all seems to me to be a silly arena of inquiry. Buddhism, for me at least, is non-dogmatic. So, while I could cite Buddha backing me up on my notion*, I won't and can't, since that would undermine my very argument. [BUT, if somebody adds a footnote to this comment when my back is turned, I know nothing about it. NOTHING, you understand. It's a complete mystery to me.]

    Now, it is true that Buddhist Philosopher hopes to make his fortune in the oxymoronic field of Buddhist Ethics and, thus -- curious to me -- trots out the tradition in Asian Buddhist cultures relating to abortion. I cannot see how THAT has any meaning. Some backward cultures used to slit the throats of perfect little lambs to somehow placate their angry God. Should we, today, with our wealth of knowledge about how the world functions follow along in that tradition? I think not. I stopped slitting lambs' throats years ago.

    Back to the abortion question: My sense of things is that life phases into being. At some point north of conception and south of learning how to ride a bicycle, a life blossoms into being. Perhaps mighty science will find that secret moment in time when "nothing" becomes human life and we will know when we should cease slitting the wee little ones' throats.
    "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." - Buddha

  3. Moral of the story = the last place you should look for Buddhist hermeneutics is the website of the BBC. They neither made any effort to dig into the philology, nor to simply review what the secular laws of the countries concerned may be.

    If this kind of source isn't beneath contempt, what is?

    Conversely, the formal academic discourse on the subject is also pretty risible. Cf. the comments made (in passing) on _Buddhism and Abortion_ (1999, U. of Hawai'i Press) buried away in my article on vegetarianism.

    The material quoted there from Robert E. Florida (allegedly on the subject of Abortion in Thailand), also, is beneath contempt.

    We're well into a cycle of the blind leading the blind --and the number of people working from primary sources is practically zero (on both the philological and political sides of the equation). The research isn't hard to do; simply, nobody alive wants to do it.

  4. Interesting controversy. Mass media sources cannot be expected to get it right. But, Is there not a difference between Buddhist ethics and Dharma?
    I can see the truth in Armstrongs statement about Buddhism being non-dogmatic, that is hardly the case for everyone. Most of us have a few vague instructions about right speech, and a method for medition. - Most White American Buddhists that is, my African American friends practice a form of Nichiren, and the Vietnamese-Laotian temple i sometimes attend is more like a Presbyterian church with a good community outreach program.

    Every nation, every people, has to have its own Buddhism, just as every one has their own path to enlightenment, but institutions cant survive without Dogma of some kind. As for the stance on abortion? Generally: Don't. This does not however mean that we should condemn or increase the suffering of those who resort to such.

  5. From the perspective of traditional Buddhist ethics I can't really see that killing a foetus is fundamentally different from killing an animal, an insect or an amoeba even. Of course, in reality, the killing of a foetus generally produces a great deal more suffering than the killing of an animal let alone an amoeba. But Buddhist (precept-based) ethics does not generally take account of such consequentialist views (even though Buddhist ethics is fundamentally based on a theory of cause and effect: karma). Nor does it take account of the potential suffering caused by raising an unplanned child under substantially sub-optimal conditions (for the mother, for the person the child will become and for society at large, especially when the child is conceived through rape). The reality of what produces evident suffering is not black and white, it's an ink painting of shades of grey. Who will be the one to judge?

    In some Buddhist traditions (eg. Zen) flexible, compassionate action becomes more important that rigid following of precepts (and interestingly this reflects the process of moral development as a human being moves from the externalised rule-following of childhood to the internalised values and responsibility-taking of adulthood).

    Also, whatever "Buddhism says" on this matter, really has no bearing on what the state does, since there is nothing in Buddhist ethics implying that we should use state power to force others to follow Buddhist ethics (any more than there is anything in Christian ethics to support using state-power to force those of different beliefs to follow our interpretation of Christian ethics).