The U.S. has struggled with the issue of abortion for many years without coming to consensus. We need a fresh perspective, and I believe the Buddhist view of the abortion issue may provide one.
Buddhism does consider abortion to be the taking of a human life. At the same time, Buddhists generally are reluctant to intervene in a woman's personal decision to terminate a pregnancy. Buddhism may discourage abortion, but it also discourages imposing rigid moral absolutes.
This may seem contradictory. In our culture, many think that if something is morally wrong it ought to be banned. However, the Buddhist view is that the rigid following of rules is not what makes us moral. Further, imposing authoritative rules often creates a new set of moral wrongs.
What About Rights?
First, the Buddhist view of abortion does not include a concept of rights, either a "right to life" or a "right to one's own body." In part this is because Buddhism is a very old religion, and the concept of human rights is relatively recent. However, approaching abortion as merely a "rights" issue doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere.
"Rights" are defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as "entitlements (not) to perform certain actions or be in certain states, or entitlements that others (not) perform certain actions or be in certain states." In this argument, a right becomes a trump card that, when played, wins the hand and shuts down all further consideration of the issue. However, activists both for and against legal abortion believe their trump card beats the other side's trump card. So nothing is settled.
When Does Life Begin?
I'm going to address this question with a personal observation that is not necessarily Buddhist but is not, I think, contradictory to Buddhism.
My understanding is that life doesn’t "begin." Scientists tell us that life got to this planet, somehow, about 4 billion years ago, and since then life has expressed itself in diverse forms beyond counting. But no one has observed it "beginning." We living beings are manifestations of an unbroken process that has been going on for 4 billion years, give or take. To me, "When does life begin?" is a nonsensical question.
And if you understand yourself as a culmination of a 4-billion-year-old process, then is conception really more significant that the moment your grandfather met your grandmother? Is any one moment in those 4 billion years really separable from all the other moments and couplings and cell divisions going back to the first macromolecules to life's beginning, assuming life had a beginning?
You might ask, What about the individual soul? One of the most basic, most essential, and most difficult teachings of Buddhism is anatman or anatta -- no soul. Buddhism teaches that our physical bodies are not possessed of an intrinsic self, and our persistent sense of ourselves as separate from the rest of the universe is a delusion.
Please understand that this is not a nihilistic teaching. The Buddha taught that if we can see through the delusion of the small, individual self, we realize a boundless "self" that is not subject to birth and death.
What Is the Self?
Our judgments on issues depend heavily on how we conceptualize them. In western culture, we understand individuals to be autonomous units. Most religions teach that these autonomous units are invested with a soul.
I've already mentioned the doctrine of anatman. According to this doctrine, what we think of as our "self" is a temporary creation of the skandhas. The skandhas are attributes -- form, senses, cognition, discrimination, consciousness -- that come together to create a distinctive, living being.
As there is no soul to transmigrate from one body to another, there is no "reincarnation" in the usual sense of the word. "Rebirth" occurs when the karma created by a past life carries over to another life. Most schools of Buddhism teach that conception is the beginning of the process of rebirth and does, therefore, mark the beginning of a human being's life.
The First Precept
The First Precept of Buddhism often is translated "I undertake to refrain from destroying life." Some schools of Buddhism make a distinction between animal and plant life, and some do not. Although human life is most important, the Precept cautions us to refrain from taking life in any of its countless manifestations.
That said, there is no question that terminating a pregnancy is an extremely serious matter. Abortion is considered to be taking a human life and is strongly discouraged in Buddhist teachings. However, I do not believe any school of Buddhism absolutely forbids it.
Buddhism teaches us not to impose our views on others and to have compassion for those facing difficult situations. Although some predominantly Buddhist countries, such as Thailand, place legal restrictions on abortion, many Buddhists do not think the state should intervene in matters of conscience.
In the next section, we look at what's wrong with moral absolutes.