Abortion and the First Precept of Buddhism

Every workday, the bus I take to my teaching job passes Regions Hospital here in St. Paul, Minnesota. Recently, on the way home, a familiar sight confronted me — the abortion protesters. They tend to be a tiny group, less than five usually, and they seem to appear annually in the weeks before and after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Holding “baby killer” signs with graphic images of aborted fetuses on them, these anti-abortion protesters never fail to send a thunderbolt of anger through me. Try as I might to express some basic compassion for these people, who are, like me, subject to excessive attachment to their views, I still find myself struggling with judgments and condemnation of their actions.

It’s a similar pattern to what I experience every time I see pro-life billboards, the ones with the cute, usually Caucasian, babies with the pithy sayings about how early in life they have a heartbeat or are able to feel pain, or some other message designed to tug at our heartstrings.

Just as the people who make these billboards can’t see beyond their view that abortion is murder, so too am I locked into the view that these people are not only wrong, but also extremists.

I have always considered myself pro-choice, although I have long found that label sloppy. The legacy of male-created reproduction laws and the historical medical mistreatment of women in this nation and many others is a profound embarrassment that we have only recently begun to overturn.

I’ve never felt it was my place, or the place of men in general, to control or legislate in general terms about the events that take place within women’s bodies. Although I believe it is the individual right of men in a relationship to have a say in making decisions about issues such as abortion, I ultimately believe that at best it’s a shared decision and, in many cases, the woman should have the lion’s share of influence over the decision.

These are some the thoughts I’ve had over the years as a Caucasian feminist man in the 21st century. However, I have found more recently that the waters are a bit cloudy for me on this whole issue, due to my Zen Buddhist practice.

Zen, like all other forms of Buddhism, is guided by a set of ethical teachings called The Precepts. A year ago, I formally took a vow to uphold those teachings, and I continue to make that vow almost on a daily basis.

Therefore, I find myself in a quandary when it comes to being unabashedly pro-choice. If I vow to follow the precepts — even knowing that they are not black and white laws to obey — then what does it mean to be “pro-choice” and also to uphold the first precept which specifies not killing?

And what about my nearly instantaneous rejection of the people who stand in front of hospitals and clinics, speaking what they believe to be the truth about abortion? Isn’t that, too, not also a form of killing, even if only in my own mind?

In his wonderful book exploring the Buddhist precepts, Being Upright, Reb Anderson writes of abortion: “In considering how this bodhisattva precept of not killing life applies to the question of abortion, we need to open our hearts and consider what is most beneficial for all concerned: the embryo, the mother, the father, and all living beings.” This approach seems much more honest and caring than those at the wild ends of the spectrum on this issue.

It pains me to hear of women who have five, six, or even more abortions in a lifetime. I can’t imagine the agony of having to face such a decision so often. Yet I also wonder if there is a sense of callousness that has developed, whereby these women do not consider their own lives worthy of the care required to avoid excessive unwanted pregnancies.

It is true, however, that some of these women are in abusive situations, are controlled by husbands or family members or even entire societies — as has been seen with many Chinese women who become pregnant more than once. So, again, it’s not a black and white issue.

On the other hand, I cannot for a moment accept the position that every woman who ever becomes pregnant must bring a baby in this world and either raise it or put it up for adoption. This is especially true of those who, for whatever reason, have a great desire to not have the baby in question.

One area of particular concern is when a mother feels forced, or is forced, to have a child and then demonstrates hatred towards it. Hatred of one’s child once it is born is such a great burden for that child. Perhaps some children may grow stronger through experiencing the hatred of a parent, but most suffer so greatly that it’s sometimes beyond comprehension. In fact, the damage takes place not only on a personal level but also on a societal level. Many people who were unwanted as children end up as adults who damage others through anti-social behavior or criminal actions — or they simply struggle mightily to maintain healthy connections with others.

I think we cannot underestimate the amount of gut-level pain and suffering for both the child and the mother who felt she was forced into having the baby. I won’t go so far to say that this is enough grounds for abortion, but in my opinion it definitely is enough to consider it.

All of this leads me back to the signs the anti-abortion protesters often stand behind, as well as the labels we use to debate this very delicate, very complex issue.

The flamboyancy of their signs, which often feature tortured fetus pictures, definitely gets my attention. But what comes next? Do they really think that those of us who disagree with them, or who perhaps aren’t sure what to think, will be swayed by such dramatic displays? Maybe a few will, I suppose, but I would guess most people will have various reactions that in one way or another reject the message and the messenger.

The same is sometimes true of those who speak of being pro-choice then launch into comments that degrade women who choose to stay at home and raise their kids, or who choose to have their baby and give it up for adoption, even though they were raped. The lock-step frames that extremists on each side of this issue speak from and act from are faulty in so much as they promote outright rejection and hatred of people who disagree with them.

Given all of this, how do we determine what is most beneficial? In my opinion, instead of clinging to a political framework of pro-choice or pro-life, we need to move into an awareness that every situation is going to call for its own, unique solution.

Living in this way is tricky. It’s open to making mistakes and it requires patience. That’s what life is all about, though, and to the extent that each of us can live liberated from the personal and collective narratives that pit us against each other, the more we will be able to come together to do what’s best.

In other words, the path to peace runs through acting — not from what we have believed in the past to be true, but what is actually present right in front of us.

Photo Credit

Floating Buddha by Christopher Holt ©2008 All rights reserved

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  1. avatar says

    “we need to open our hearts and consider what is most beneficial for all concerned”

    True in all matters. All ideologies become seriously flawed when they start to put the belief ahead of people. How many wars would we have if we stopped and said “Okay, in this situation, what is best for the people here?”

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