What do Theravada Buddhists believe in terms of abortion? Much of what has been written are liberal beliefs and overturning what is written down in the texts. They claim “Modern Buddhism” as a section heading, but there is no such thing as “Modern Buddhism” since there is no such thing as “Modern Kamma.” The rules of kamma do not change over time, and abortion has been around since the time of the Buddha. My job is not to make decisions or advice for others, but to give a “pure” classical Buddhist explanation on abortion.
In brief, the Theravada Buddhist texts (and probably all other schools) believe that an unborn child after conception is a living human being. Aborting it with intention is the same as killing a human living being. How the kamma works out is beyond my imagination. It does however play an important role in the Buddhist Rules which can be used as a bar for knowing if something was done wrong or not. If a monk directly says that abortion is OK or uses code words or even indirect speech with intention to say it is OK for a person to commit an abortion, and a person uses that speech as a reason to abort an unborn child, then it is a Pārājika offense; an offense of defeat and immediate expulsion. The monk is expelled automatically without a trial and may not even know it. The same is also true with topics on euthanasia. A Pārājika rule on killing is also found in the Mahayana, and Tibetan Schools as well.
How is that? First let us take a quote from the rule book called, The Buddhist Monastic Code I, which is an English authority on the Buddhist Monastic Rules.
The translated rule for killing a human is as follows:
3. Should any bhikkhu intentionally deprive a human being of life, or search for an assassin for him, or praise the advantages of death, or incite him to die (saying): “My good man, what use is this evil, miserable life to you? Death would be better for you than life,” or with such an idea in mind, such a purpose in mind, should in various ways praise the advantages of death or incite him to die, he also is defeated and no longer in affiliation. This rule against intentionally causing the death of a human being is best understood in terms of five factors, all of which must be present for there to be the full offense.
- Object: a human being, which according to the Vibhaṅga includes human fetuses as well, counting from the time consciousness first arises in the womb immediately after conception up to the time of death.
- Intention: knowingly, consciously, deliberately, and purposefully wanting to cause that person’s death. “Knowingly” also includes the factor of —
- Perception: perceiving the person as a living being.
- Effort: whatever one does with the purpose of causing that person to die.
- Result: The life-faculty of the person is cut as the result of one’s act.
Object. The Vibhaṅga defines a human being as a person “from the time consciousness first becomes manifest in a mother’s womb, up to its death-time.” It follows from this that a bhikkhu who intentionally causes an abortion — by arranging for the operation, supplying the medicines, or giving advice that results in an abortion — incurs a pārājika. A bhikkhu who encourages a woman to use a means of contraception that works after the point of conception would be guilty of a pārājika if she were to follow his advice.
As you can see, abortion is used as an example in this book and also the main source in Pāḷi. It should be noted that the first consciousness is defined as the rebirth-linking consciousness. This basically happens at conception. Some say that if you poke it and it does not move then there is no consciousness. So does that mean that a person who is in a coma does not have consciousness? There are monks who can feel themselves spinning in the womb seconds after the first consciousness arises. This means that consciousness happens before the egg attached to the uterine wall. That is why the author warns about contraception that can kill the fertilized egg. But there is more than just direct speech. There is a phrase in the original rule that is important.
“or praise the advantages of death”
This opens up the door just about anything, even a nod of the head or a grunt, etc that may praise the benefits of killing, or death. In this case, speaking up in praise of abortion for any case, even to save the life of a mother, is an offense as well. If someone were to listen to a recording of such words or read an article of such words, and then do the abortion, then it would be an offense for a monk all the same as killing himself.
Such a topic is sort of taboo for a monk to publicly speak on because there is no way of really knowing if someone had killed an unborn baby based on such words. Just as it is the penalty for monks on killing humans, it can be used as a model for the first precept for lay people on killing living beings.
Here is an account in an ancient text called The Path of Purification.
39. When the mother has an abortion, the pain that arises in him through the cutting and rending in the place where the pain arises that is not fit to be seen even by friends and intimates and companions—this is the suffering rooted in abortion. (p512)
*Buddhist Monastic Code I by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight , June 7, 2009, The work has been copied from the website www.accesstoinsight.org and made into book format for free distribution.
*The Path of Purification: ©1975, 1991, 2010 (used without permission needed in exchange for this reference) Visuddhimaga/Buddhaghosa Himi; tr. by Nyanamoli Himi.- Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 2010, 794p.; 23cm.-(BP No 207) ISBN 978-955-24-0023-6