The Buddhist Approach to Morality
Buddhism does not approach morality by handing out absolute rules to be followed in all circumstances. Instead, it provides guidance to help us see how what we do affects ourselves and others. The karma we create with our thoughts, words and actions keeps us subject to cause and effect. Thus, we assume responsibility for our actions and the results of our actions. Even the Precepts are not commandments, but princples, and it is up to us to decide how to apply those principles to our lives.
"There are no moral absolutes in Buddhism and it is recognized that ethical decision-making involves a complex nexus of causes and conditions. 'Buddhism' encompasses a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices, and the canonical scriptures leave room for a range of interpretations. All of these are grounded in a theory of intentionality, and individuals are encouraged to analyze issues carefully for themselves. ... When making moral choices, individuals are advised to examine their motivation--whether aversion, attachment, ignorance, wisdom, or compassion--and to weigh the consequences of their actions in light of the Buddha's teachings."
What's Wrong With Moral Absolutes?
Our culture places great value on something called "moral clarity." Moral clarity rarely is defined, but I infer it means ignoring the messier aspects of complex moral issues so that one can apply simple, rigid rules to solving them. If you take all facets of an issue into account, you risk not being clear.
Moral clarifiers love to rework all ethical problems into simple equations of right and wrong, good and bad. There is an assumption that an issue can have only two sides, and that one side must be entirely right and the other side entirely wrong. Complex issues are simplified and oversimplified and stripped of all ambiguous aspects to make them fit into "right" and "wrong" boxes.
To a Buddhist, this is a dishonest and unskillful way to approach morality.
In the case of abortion, often people who have taken a side glibly dismiss the concerns of any other side. For example, in much anti-abortion literature women who have abortions are portrayed as selfish or thoughtless, or sometimes just plain evil. The very real problems an unwanted pregnancy might bring to a woman's life are not honestly acknowledged. Moralists sometimes discuss embryos, pregnancy and abortion without mentioning women at all. At the same time, those who favor legal abortion sometimes fail to acknowledge the humanity of the fetus.
The Fruits of Absolutism
Although Buddhism discourages abortion, we see that criminalizing abortion causes much suffering. The Alan Guttmacher Institute documents that criminalizing abortion does not stop it or even reduce it. Instead, abortion goes underground and is performed in unsafe conditions.
In desperation, women submit to unsterile procedures. They drink bleach or turpentine, perforate themselves with sticks and coat hangers, and even jump off roofs. Worldwide, unsafe abortion procedures cause the deaths of about 67,000 women per year, mostly in nations in which abortion is illegal.
Those with "moral clarity" can ignore this suffering. A Buddhist cannot. In his book The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics, Robert Aitken Roshi said (p.17), "The absolute position, when isolated, omits human details completely. Doctrines, including Buddhism, are meant to be used. Beware of them taking life of their own, for then they use us."
What About the Baby?
My understanding is that an individual is a phenomenon of life in the same way a wave is a phenomenon of ocean. When the wave begins, nothing is added to the ocean; when it ends, nothing is taken away.
Robert Aitken Roshi wrote (The Mind of Clover, pp. 21-22),"Sorrow and suffering form the nature of samsara, the flow of life and death, and the decision to prevent birth is made on balance with other elements of suffering. Once the decision is made, there is no blame, but rather acknowledgment that sadness pervades the whole universe, and this bit of life goes with our deepest love."
The Buddhist Approach
In researching this article I found universal consensus among Buddhist ethicists that the best approach to the abortion issue is to educate people about birth control and encourage them to use contraceptives. Beyond that, as Karma Lekshe Tsomo writes,
"In the end, most Buddhists recognize the incongruity that exists between ethical theory and actual practice and, while they do not condone the taking of life, do advocate understanding and compassion toward all living beings, a lovingkindness that is nonjudgmental and respects the right and freedom of human beings to make their own choices."