Aug 1999

Few debates in our society generate as much heat and as little light as the debate about abortion. A sign of the odd and oftimes less than honest nature of the discussion is that the advocates of the opposing sides style themselves "Pro-Choice" or "Pro-Life," both studiously avoiding the "A" word.

Harmlessness is seen as a cardinal virtue. Buddhism takes this farther than most religious traditions by extending it to animal life. Certainly one can find extreme situations when the ethical principle must be bent in practice, such as the eradication of malarial mosquitoes, but the tradition is cautious about any such concessions to utilitarianism.

Abortion is undeniably the taking of life. The debate centers on the issue as to whether the life in question can be considered human. Buddhism like most religions, says most emphatically that it is. The Buddhist teaching has it that consciousness first arises at the moment of conception, and that consciousness, shaped by karmic influences from past lives, is a critical, and indeed formative, component of the new organism from that moment on.

The opposite view is only supportable if one reduces human existence to the strictly mechanical, denying any spiritual dimension to the human experience. Unhappily, this is a view much too prevalent in our modern age, a view which passes itself off as "scientific." If a human life is nothing beyond strictly biological processes, then it has no intrinsic worth above and beyond those processes. This opens the way to a utilitarian ethic that condones killing of humans in many situations, not only abortion but war, capital punishment and euthanasia. If it is seen that the continuance of a given human life stands in the way of some ostensible greater good, then for the materialist philosopher, it becomes acceptable to end that life.

This ethic which sometimes calls itself "humanist" is in reality profoundly dehumanizing. When young women are led to believe that there is no moral issue involved in acts of violence perpetrated within their wombs, then something else besides the fetus is being destroyed. Our respect for human worth and dignity is undermined. We can see this trend all around us. If our culture truly respected "humanist" values, would it tolerate thousands of the poor living in the streets and eating out of dumpsters?

But if abortion is a moral evil, as all wisdom traditions agree, then what is the best way to eliminate it? Hitherto it seems that most of the effort of the anti-abortion people has been directed to changing the laws. We should think carefully about this approach. To make an act illegal, to put the coercive power of the state behind its ban, is not to eliminate it, it is only to drive it under cover. Many examples prove this, the historical one of alcohol prohibition and the contemporary experience of drug use.

Not only does a legal ban fail to eliminate the act, it fails to address the real problem, which is a moral rehabilitation of society. A legal ban would be unnecessary if the moral attitude of society were awakened to the unacceptability of the deed. Of course it is much easier to change a law than it is to educate values.

We also need to be more realistic and compassionate in our approach to the problem. For example, when young people have ready access to contraceptives, this eliminates many unwanted pregnancies and therefore possible abortions. As part of this preventative aspect, men especially need to take more responsibility for their half of the deed. Further, we ought to be more tolerant and accepting of unmarried mothers. they ought not to be made to feel ashamed, nor ought they to be put into material suffering by a parsimonious welfare system. Those who would advocate compassion for the unborn need to practice it for the born as well.

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