On 3 May, the American magazine Politico published a leaked draft of the US Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in the case of Thomas E. Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health. The case has long been seen as an attempt to overthrow the precedent given in the 1973 case Roe vs. Wade. That ruling, drawing from the US Constitution’s “right to privacy,” protects a pregnant person’s right to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restrictions.
Proponents of legal access to abortions have been predicting the verdict since late last year, when oral arguments were made and the justice’s questions hinted at such an outcome. Even before that, when Donald Trump was elected president and then had the opportunity to seat three new justices to the nine-person panel, it was widely predicted that Roe would be challenged.
If the draft decision is enacted, people in America will lose the federal guarantee and many states will ban most abortion procedures. While many states will seek to ensure access for people willing to travel and no changes are in sight elsewhere in the world, such a shift could open the door to further remove or restrict to abortion access in the US.
Recent polls of Buddhists in the US suggest overwhelming support for keeping abortion legal in all or most cases. However, this reduction of options to yes/no/unsure obfuscates the complexity of the issue of abortion for Buddhists, both in the US today and around the world throughout history.
Views range from those who believe that a future human life worthy of equal status and protection begins at conception, to those who regard abortions as a form of healthcare—something that should be safe, legal, and widely available.
Textual sources offer no absolute and clear guidance, and support for both of these perspectives can be found. For scholars of Buddhist ethics, abortion is clearly included under the first lay precept to abstain from harming living beings. In the Vinaya literature, monastics were forbidden from causing or helping with an abortion.
According to Buddhist thought on rebirth, a new being descends into the womb at the moment of conception. Because a human rebirth is so tremendously rare and important for the pursuit of awakening, to end such an opportunity is a very powerful act.
While these considerations offer weight to the arguments of those seeking to restrict abortion access, a number of other factors must also be considered. Reducing harm and the alleviation of suffering are goals that Buddhists widely strive toward. When considering the range of effects of tight restrictions on abortion access, many people begin to side more with those who wish to keep abortion safe and legal.
In the US, demographer Dr. Diana Greene Foster spent 10 years tracking the experiences of women who received abortions or were denied them. What she found was a wide number of problems for women denied abortions, ranging from physical and mental health issues to decreased socioeconomic well-being. On the other hand, those who were granted access to abortions had improved mental well-being, although many did experience negative emotions about the procedure at first.
Sallie Jiko Tisdale, a lay Dharma teacher at Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon, and who at one time worked in an abortion clinic, considered these factors in an article last year:
Killing is an act that is always wrong, according to the precepts. But the precept is not merely about physical killing. It is a precept of ahimsa, non-harming. At the clinic, I was reminded on a daily basis that people don’t “get pregnant.” People are impregnated, by accident, by intent, and sometimes through violence. Forced pregnancy kills spirit, joy, freedom, opportunity, and hope. Abortion can be a rescue.Tricycle
As we read these considerations alongside the findings from Dr. Foster’s demographic research, we might remind ourselves of Buddhism’s longstanding roots in patriarchal societies. Given the contexts of early Buddhism and much of Buddhist history, patriarchal systems constricted what Buddhist thinkers could write about and perhaps even what they could see as realities around them.
As Dr. Amy Paris Langenberg, a specialist in classical South Asian Buddhism, wrote in 2020:
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. . . . 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.Institute of Buddhist Studies
The Buddha is widely described as having advanced the status of women in his time, both acknowledging their capacity for awakening and establishing the female monastic (bhikshuni) lineage. Nonetheless, this did not afford anything near equality in practical matters. And later generations of Buddhists even reduced the status and freedoms of women.
With regard to abortion, Dr. Langenberg notes that people from most historically Buddhist societies tend not to approve of abortion. An exception to this is post-war Japan, where laws have been liberal and abortion has been commonly practiced. Western Buddhists, too, widely see abortion as permissible.
These differences may have less to do with Buddhism per se and more to do with society’s overall willingness to take women’s views into account. In many of these societies, things are starting to change. Nearly 30 years ago, the Dalai Lama signaled this development, while still noting textual tradition, saying:
Of course, abortion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is an act of killing and is negative, generally speaking. But it depends on the circumstances. . . . I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.The New York Times
Taking into account “each circumstance” sounds like the more progressive view that any abortion decision should ultimately be made by a pregnant person and their healthcare provider. In suggesting this, the Dalai Lama and others holding this position need not be seen as breaking from tradition. Rather, like the Dalai Lama, we can hold both the androcentric tradition and a more modern and balanced view at the same time. While holding two seemingly opposed views at once might be difficult, especially in heated and polarized political environments, it seems necessary for those who take seriously both the reality of the 2,600-year-old Buddhist tradition and the reality of reproductive rights in the world today.
Supreme Court has voted to overturn abortion rights, draft opinion shows (Politico)
A landmark study tracks the lasting effect of having an abortion — or being denied one (NPR)
Is There a Buddhist View on Abortion? (Tricycle)
What Does Buddhism Say About Abortion? (Institute of Buddhist Studies)
The Dalai Lama (The New York Times)
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Women in Contemporary Buddhism: A Challenge for the 21st Century
Women in Buddhism: Breaking Gender Stereotypes
Buddhistdoor View: Refining the Art of Being Human
The Past and the Future of Women in Buddhism
Buddhistdoor View: Strengthening the Tradition of Women’s Leadership in Buddhism