18 September 2013
Book Review: Buddhism and Abortion
As I have mentioned in previous posts, Buddhism has a quite ambivalent and ambiguous relationship with sexuality. One of the five precepts of all Buddhists is for lay practitioners not engage in illicit sexual acts. But what does that mean? The focus of Buddhism is on salvation, liberation, perfection, etc., etc.,. Sexuality is generally considered to be an obstacle to that (much in the pre-Pauline way that Christ is against marriage, see Matthew 19:12). In that way, for Buddhism, homosexuality and masturbation are considered to have the moral equivalency of heterosexuality. Monks and nuns were prohibited "marrying" individuals. Even that prohibition has been more or less set aside as monks and nuns do bless and participate in marriage ceremonies these days.
I have decided to review this book here to consider other aspects of sexuality -- namely abortion. One of the other five precepts in Buddhism is "not to kill." Like sexuality, what does that mean? For example, in Thailand, Buddhists generally consider a greater harm/sin in eating larger animals and lesser harm/sin in eating smaller animals. The idea is that the intent to kill and the amount of effort needed to kill increases with the size of the animal. In Tibet, Buddhists generally believe the opposite. It is better to eat one large animal for two weeks than to eat twenty small animals for the same amount of time because with one large animal, only one life is taken whereas with the smaller animals more lives are taken. This weighing and considering of course considers nothing of the value of biodiversity and carbon footprints to lessening suffering overall of lives-in-existence.
Keown's edited volume focuses on the current state of abortion in society (in the 1990s) in Thailand, South Korea and Japan along with a debate about Buddhist view's of abortion by western Buddhism. But we see that abortion, in just about every country, is real a mediating symbol for other issues in society: women's bodies, regulation of sexuality, the role of religion in politics, etc.,.
In the US, abortion is viewed in two frames: pro-choice and pro-life. These two discourses have almost no shared assumptions. Consequently, these clashing views constantly must go to court to reach a resolution to any particular problem.The US is one extreme. In much of Europe, there is an inverse correlation between access to abortion and access to child-rearing social services. Japan and Vietnam represent another extreme in terms of the official abortion rate while the Philippines and Ireland rates represent another.
I myself believe that abortion should be legal and readily available to any woman who needs one from a qualified medical practitioner. I also believe that contraception should be made readily available together with appropriate medical information regarding sex to women and men. Preventing the need for abortion is the government's greatest goal in managing abortion rates and when those prevention strategies (appropriate sex education in the schools, access to appropriate medical information and contraception) fail, safe abortion procedures should be readily available.
I understand that abortion was used by a number of states during the twentieth century as a way to engage in ethnic cleansing, political persecution, etc., and that we must be cautious in that regard. Many people who survived those regimes are coldly against abortion in any form. I am not in favor of forced or mandatory abortions -- and this could be challenged as an illusory claim as a poor woman with no resources to raise a child may be "forced" to have an abortion. That may have some validity, but I don't consider that the force or mandate that I refer to above. I'm talking about an individual being forced to do something without their informed consent.
And from my perspective, as a Buddhist, religion should use its power and symbolic resources to then comfort and assist women who have had abortions which are both physically and psychologically intense as they do in Japan by conducting rituals to allow the women to release the psychological burdens and shame they feel from having an abortion. The issue of when life begins is a metaphysical question that has no legal or medical answer. Nevertheless, abortion is a juridical and medical phenomenon and the contours of its legal access is something that can be determined on a juridical and medical basis.
The version I read was a 236 page cloth published by the University of Hawaii Press (May 1, 1998), ISBN-13: 978-0824821081. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was used at amazon.com (if you include shipping in your calculations).