Tricycle | Buddhism in the 21st Century: What is the Buddhist view of abortion?

A myriad of Jizo Buddha statues, which are regarded as protectors for children and unborn babies
in traditional Japanese Buddhist teachings, sit alongside steps to Daisho-in Temple in Miyajima, Japan.
Photo by Ivan Okyere-Boakye / Alamy Stock Photo


The first of the five precepts—the essential guidelines for Buddhist ethics—is to abstain from taking life. The Buddha laid out a set of conditions that constitute the act of killing: Was the act intentional? Was an effort to kill exerted? Abortion does fulfill those conditions and thus violates the first precept.

According to Buddhist teachings, life—rebirth—begins at conception. In the traditional view, whether or not an embryo or fetus can survive on its own, it is a sentient being whose spiritual progress is thwarted by an abortion. Both the mother and whoever performs the abortion generate negative karma as a result, too.

Like most fraught moral issues, abortion has inspired much Buddhist debate over the centuries, and many contemporary Buddhists have sought a flexible approach. But as Damien Keown, a British bioethicist, put it, “Buddhism cannot offer a middle way on abortion, because it has already taken sides.” Still, the precepts are guidelines, not commandments, and abortion is generally considered by many Western Buddhists to be a personal decision to be made by the mother and her doctor.

In Japan, Buddhist women who have had an abortion sometimes make offerings to Jizo, a protector deity of lost travelers and children. It’s believed that Jizo will guide the child to the next, more auspicious rebirth. The Dalai Lama has also weighed in on the question of abortion, saying that while it is generally a negative act, each one should be considered individually.

Source: Trìcycle | Buddhism For Beginners

Learn more in Tricycle founder Helen Tworkov’s examination of the pro-life and pro-choice stances on abortion from the perspective of Buddhist teachings. The scholar Williamla Fleur reflects on Japanese Buddhist rites for aborted and miscarried fetuses and asks what the West can learn from these rituals.

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