Amy Paris Langenberg is a specialist in South Asian Buddhism and her work focuses on gender, power, and the body. She is the author of Birth in Buddhism: The Suffering Fetus and Female Freedom and teaches at Eckard College. We are pleased to have her contribution to the Ten Thousand Thing’s “Ask a Scholar” feature.
Q: I’ve been thinking a lot about abortion since the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and the upcoming case June Medical Services v. Gee. People often use religion, and especially Christianity, to justify anti-abortion legislature and opinions. What does Buddhism say about abortion?
A: The right to safe and legal abortion in the United States is a political and moral battlefield, with religion a major factor in how the sides are formed. But what does Buddhism say about abortion? In fact, abortion is not a major ethical concern in the classical Buddhist traditions of South Asia. Issues such as the ritual sacrifice of animals, male sexual purity, and political violence receive more attention in early texts. Still, it is possible to piece together scattered references and formulate an answer to the question of what Buddhism says about abortion.
Scholars of Buddhist ethics (for instance, Barnhart 2018; Harvey 2000; Keown 2005) and Buddhist teachers agree that abortion is very definitely included among actions proscribed under the first lay precept against causing harm. The monastic legal literature (vinaya), written for monks and nuns, also specifically mentions causing or providing the means for terminating a pregnancy as one of the actions leading to “defeat” (pārājika) or exclusion from the ordained community (McDermott 1999). Furthermore, according to narratives from the early tradition such as the jātakas or “birth stories,” those who participate in abortion accrue negative karmic imprints that lead to suffering and inferior bodies in future rebirths.
Traditional Buddhist embryologies describe conception as the union of the male and female sexual fluids with the transmigrating consciousness in the mother’s womb during her fertile period (Langenberg 2017a: 34). Conception itself is regarded as the starting point for human life. In other words, no matter how small, the unborn are persons and therefore of moral consequence in classical Buddhist ethical thought. Moreover, Buddhists consider human rebirth to be particularly rare and precious because of the human capacity for moral development and spiritual attainment.
These classical Buddhist positions map onto attitudes towards abortion in many Asian Buddhist cultures. Peter Harvey (2000: 328-332) reports disapproval of abortion in the Tibetan diaspora, as well as in Thailand (see also Florida 1999) and Sri Lanka. Damien Keown (2005: 91-93) also reports moral and legal opposition to abortion in Theravāda countries. Post-war Japan is one Buddhist place where abortion laws have been liberal and abortion commonly practiced. Still, even in Japan, some women (and men) who have had abortions worry about its karmic consequences and suffer spiritually, leading them to participate in a special ritual available at Buddhist temples called mizuko kuyō or the “offering for water children.”
While early Buddhist sources are consistent regarding the fundamental ethical principles outlined above, some sticky points for debate do arise. For instance, several modern scholars raise the issue of fetal size (Barnhart 2018: 597; Harvey 2000: 316). The discussion revolves around a particular passage in the authoritative fifth-century CE scholar Buddhaghosa’s commentary on the Majjhima-nikāya, one of the major collections of early Buddhist suttas. Buddhaghosa argues that the ethical seriousness of any act of killing depends in part on the size and moral capacities of the victim. Thus, it is more serious to kill an elephant than an ant. While Buddhaghosa’s passage refers only to animals, modern scholars have applied his logic to the case of abortion, arguing that one can make a Buddhist case for permitting early-stage abortions, even though all acts of fetal-killing are unwholesome. Other scholars argue that, in early Buddhist sources, size is morally relevant only for animals, not for humans (Keown 2005: 91).
Because they focus almost exclusively on the Pāli tradition, most existing scholarly discussions fail to mention that, in fact, an early Buddhist Sanskrit tradition does exist that makes an argument for early-stage abortion on the basis of fetal development. The Mahāsāṅghika school holds that very young embryos that have yet to develop arms, legs, or a head exist in a fluid state and do not yet possess a full compliment of sense faculties. While the killing of young embryos still counts as harm, it does not count as homicide as they are not considered fully human. In other words, an early stage abortion is less ethically serious than a late stage abortion in that Buddhist school (Langenberg 2017: 99).
Another area for debate in the scholarly literature is how concerns about the mother’s well-being should affect Buddhist ethical thinking on abortion. If the mother’s physical, economic, or emotional well-being is threatened by the pregnancy, does this give grounds for ending the pregnancy? In fact, the classical tradition does not address these issues, so Buddhist ethicists and practitioners must extrapolate from what they perceive to be foundational Buddhist principles. Most scholars who have written on the subject do not find the unique burdens pregnancy poses for women to weigh seriously against Buddhist ethical dogmas like the importance of non-harm and the preciousness of human life. Most conclude, like Phillip Lesco, that “Buddhism has a ‘pro-life’ position on abortion” (1987: 217), with exceptions being made for cases in which the mother will not survive the pregnancy.
It is useful to learn how ethicists parse Buddhist views on abortion. What is left in shadow by the philosophical approaches described above, however, is the fact that gender complicates ethical decision making. To neglect the issue of gender is to assume that all stakeholders approach the issue of abortion with the same vital concerns and existential pressures. Clearly, this is not the case. An unwanted or dangerous pregnancy is always going to be an ethical, economic, emotional, physical, and social problem for the woman in question. In the world we actually live in (as opposed to the world we wish we lived in), problematic pregnancies only sometimes create challenges for the “fathers” involved. Some men never find out or are able to avoid taking responsibility. Some are even rapists. To explore Buddhists ethics on abortion without attention to gender and only through an androcentric textual tradition in which women’s perspectives and embodied experiences are not taken fully into account is not sufficient.
To explore Buddhists ethics on abortion without attention to gender and only through an androcentric textual tradition in which women’s perspectives and embodied experiences are not taken fully into account is not sufficient.
What does Buddhism say about abortion, we ask? We have to answer this question not just from the perspective of doctrine or authoritative male-authored texts but also from the perspective of what it has been like for women to contemplate, practice, or recover from abortion in Buddhist societies, or in societies where Buddhism is a significant influence.
Although abortion is not a frequent topic in early Buddhist literature, by reading between the lines we can glimpse something of how women in ancient Buddhist South Asia may have experienced unwanted or socially dangerous pregnancies. Then, as today, this was a treacherous area of life for women, and one easily erased, stigmatized, exploited, or politicized by those with greater privilege, influence, and security. By a certain reading of Buddhist story literature, for instance, we can ascertain that women were blamed and demonized for managing their bodies. Early Buddhist stories that mention abortion typically include implications of female licentiousness or women’s cruelty towards other women. For instance, the commentary to the Dhammapada relates a story about competing co-wives, one fertile and one barren. Envious, the barren wife slips the fertile wife an abortifacient causing a miscarriage. Several miscarriages later, the fertile wife carries a baby to term but dies during childbirth, vowing to be born as a child-eating ogress so that she can consume her rival’s children, should there be any (McDermott 1999: 158-159). In another story, this time from the vinaya literature, a wife becomes pregnant by her lover while her husband is away and begs a monk who frequents her household to provide an abortifacient. In yet another story, this time from a nuns’ vinaya, a woman begs a nun to carry away an aborted or miscarried fetus in her begging bowl, lest her in-laws discover her predicament (Langenberg 2017b: 116).
The manipulative women in these narratives abort as a result of envy and promiscuity and are apparently not afraid to exploit the monastic sangha in order to save themselves. If we take these stories as rhetorical or didactic, created to support the aims of an androcentric patriarchal tradition, rather than descriptions of historical reality, we can intuit the suspicions placed on women when it came to abortion. Applying a critical, feminist reading, we might surmise that unwanted pregnancies and miscarriages constituted emotional, medical, and social crises for early Buddhist women, and that they were likely to be blamed and punished for them. We might further surmise that Buddhist monks and nuns sometimes provided aid to women facing unwanted pregnancy or miscarriage.
Japan gives us by far the best researched example of abortion within a Buddhist society. Mizuko kuyō is a modern Japanese Buddhist ritual that appeases the spirits of aborted and miscarried fetuses. In his landmark study, William LaFleur (1992) argues that mizuko kuyō constitutes a pragmatic form of moral reasoning that deals with what is rather than dictating what ought to be. LaFleur sees mizuko kuyō as a Buddhist attempt to ethically contend with the inevitabilities of pregnancy loss, not by blaming women, but by providing a gentle ritual container for their guilt and sadness. An expert in Japanese new religious movements, Helen Hardacre’s understanding of the mizuko kuyō phenomenon is considerably more suspicious (1997). She highlights the cynical ways in which some Buddhist temples exploit women’s spiritual fears for financial gain.
Bardwell Smith’s 2013 study aggregates interviews with lay people and priests as well as personal remembrances, finding that women’s dominant reason for practicing mizuko kuyō is the grief that comes with pregnancy loss. Smith emphasizes women’s agency in undertaking this rite, even suggesting that mizuko kuyō constitutes a form of resistance against the sexually repressive social conditions and normative gender expectations women face in contemporary Japan. While the classical ethical framework described above still operates in some form in Japan, Japanese clerical and lay Buddhists also make room for the guilt, fear, and grief associated with abortion, especially as experienced by women. The same is coming to be true for North America, where Jeff Wilson (2009) has documented the practice of “water baby” ceremonies at heritage and convert temples alike.
What does Buddhism say about abortion? The classical tradition, which is androcentric, deems abortion unwholesome. However, Buddhism as a situated embodied lifeway has also sometimes manifested an ethic of care that is helpful to women facing unwanted pregnancy.
Amy Paris Langenberg
Barnhart, Michael G. 2018. “Buddhist Perspectives on Abortion and Reproduction.” In The Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Ethics, edited by Daniel Cozort and James Mark Shields, 592-610. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Florida, Robert E. 1999. “Abortion in Buddhist Thailand.” In Buddhism and Abortion, edited by Damien Keown, 11-30. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Hardcare, Helen. 1997. Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Harvey, Peter. 2000. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Keown, Damien. 2005. Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
LaFleur, William R. 1992. Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Langenberg, Amy Paris. 2017a. Birth in Buddhism: The Suffering Fetus and Female Freedom. Abingdon: Routledge Press.
Langenberg, Amy Paris. 2017b. “Nuns, Laywomen, and Healing: Three Rules from a Sanskrit Nuns’ Disciplinary Code.” In Buddhism and Medicine: An Anthology of Premodern Sources. Edited by C. Pierce Salguero, 113-117. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lesco, Phillip A. 1987. “A Buddhist View of Abortion.” Journal of Religion and Health 26.3: 214-218.
McDermott, James P. 1999. “Abortion in the Pāli Canon and Early Buddhist Thought.” In Buddhism and Abortion, edited by Damien Keown, 157-182. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Smith, Bardwell, L. 2013. Narratives of Sorrow and Dignity: Japanese Women, Pregnancy Loss, and Modern Rituals of Grieving. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wilson, Jeff. 2009. Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.