(Note: These words are purely mine and represent my views and reflections alone. I am not a Buddhist teacher nor represent a specific tradition or teacher) There has been some heated discussion in my last post about whether a Buddhist can be pro-choice (allowing women a legal right to an abortion). But before I get into my views of abortion I think it is helpful to speak to the sutras/texts first. It is true that it appears that Buddha advised against abortion in the sutras and cannons but there is a certain amount of faith that one must have that all of these sutras/texts indeed were the historical words of Buddha. I say this because the earliest texts only go back to the 1st century whereas the Buddha lived and taught 400-500 years earlier.
It is probable that some of his teachings changed over time and some even lost. It is also probable that at least some of the teachings of the Buddha were the work of monks (not Buddha) who came years after his death. And just because one is a monk does not mean that they have the best interests of all at heart. Therefore it can be argued that some of the teachings on abortion and other issues could have come from the minds of others with political, patriarchal or other personal motives. I realize that Theravadans and other Buddhists claim the sutras and texts to be the literal words of the Buddha but many scholars and other Buddhists disagree.
So what are we to do? Well we all have to decide for ourselves and for me I use the Kalama Sutra or Buddha's charter of free inquiry as my measuring stick. In my opinion the sutra exists for one of two reasons: 1). One is that it actually took place where the Buddha advised the Kalama people on how to know what religious teachings to accept as truth. From Wikipedia: The Buddha tells the Kalamas to not just believe religious teachings because they are claimed to be true by various sources or through the application of various methods and techniques. He urges that direct knowledge from one's own experience should be called upon.
So while I follow the sutras in many cases, I also use my meditations, scholarly works, mind-set, values instilled by my family, pondering and personal reasoning to come to that direct knowledge of what I believe to be "truth." I try to use various methods to exhaust all avenues because I do not like to make decisions lightly. 2). The other reason being that it is possible that some monks realized that there were parts of these texts that contradict each other and that faith alone isn't sufficient for everyone. Thus a teaching was needed to help others who are more reason based folks to come to a decision of what the Dharma means in their lives. And thus, the creation of the Kalama Sutra.
Now some argue that the Buddha wasn't saying this method of inquiry should be applied to his teachings but seeing how Gautama was speaking to a group of non-Buddhists surely in his perfect wisdom he knew that they would do just that--apply that very admonition to his teachings as well as to the other holy men and wandering aesthetics. Why would one who didn't set out to start a religion say to those honestly seeking spiritual enlightenment to question every other teacher/source but to not question his teachings and to blindly accept them? And why would an enlightened one be threatened of people questioning and testing his claims on their own? Especially knowing that one can not force enlightenment upon another or give it to you but that it is, in the end, up to you to realize it. That is not to say that we shouldn't place a high importance upon his "words/teachings" when making our spiritual decisions and forming our beliefs because we should.
So now I'm finally getting to abortion, it is because of the Kalama Sutra that I don't agree that we know for sure that the Buddha actually said that abortion is wrong and/or wrong in all cases (It's possible that he didn't even address it. He was known to not answer many philosophical questions and that it was added later by monks looking to set up a codified religion). I say this because the scriptures saying that the Buddha was against abortion in all cases just don't jive with other things he has taught such as the five aggregates/skandhas that make up human life (at least according to the Mahayana tradition and the "Tathagatagarbha" scriptures). Other sources that the five aggregates make up human life: Source 2. Source 3. Source 4. Source 5. I will go into detail a bit about these which are also called the skandhas a bit later but first some information/statistics about abortion:
-Over 90% of abortions are done in the first trimester (the first three months from conception). At two months only half of the brain is formed and while the embryo responds to touch and while pain sensors have appeared, the path ways between the brain and pain sensors are not connected thus most conclude the embryo can not register pain at this stage.
And if you have an abortion earlier (within one month of becoming pregnant) the embyro is only 1/5" and looks something like a tadpole. It has no arms and legs but a tail and fish like gills that eventually become the throat.
Now, with that information let's have a look at the skandhas (the five aggregates of human life/being). I believe in the skandhas because I have meditated upon them, pondered them, can see logically how they would make up life and they ring true to me based on my use of the advice in the Kalama Sutra. So let's see how they match up to the above information which is widely accepted by the medical community:
First Skandha: Form. Which consist of the six sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch) but in order for form to be life there must also be corresponding material objects of those senses. (eyes-visible objects, ears-audible objects, nose-olfactory objects, tongue-objects of taste and touch-tangilble objects). Vision is the last sense to develop and using the Buddhist aggregates there are no eyes yet that can see just holes (according to the world renowned Mayo Clinic eyes are still shut in the first week of the third trimester so a baby certainly can't see during the first trimester when most abortions occur and my measuring stick of when abortions are acceptable) And an embryo (embryo is the name used during the first trimester) can't hear anything (a fetus can hear at week 18-20 which is well after the first trimester and the first trimester is when most abortions occur). There isn't a fully functioning tongue for tasting until week 13-15 within the second trimester. While not unanimous, most medical studies show that a fetus can not feel pain or register touch in it's brain until the 28th week (seventh month). Well after the first trimester when I believe abortion is acceptable:
Fetuses cannot feel pain until at least the 28th week of gestation because they haven't formed the necessary nerve pathways, says Mark Rosen, an obstetrical anesthesiologist at the University of California at San Francisco. He and his colleagues determined that until the third trimester, "the wiring at the point where you feel pain, such as the skin, doesn't reach the emotional part where you feel pain, in the brain." Although fetuses start forming pain receptors eight weeks into development, the thalamus, the part of the brain that routes information to other areas, doesn't form for 20 more weeks. Without the thalamus, Rosen says, no information can reach the cortex for processing.A nose doesn't even begin to form until at least the last week of the first trimester let alone be able to smell because their isn't a fully formed nervous system or brain to register the messages of smell sent through nerve pathways.
The form aggregate also includes secondary elements. The first are the Five sensory receptors: Eye, nose, tongue and body which we basically discussed above. Then four sense data: These are color, sound, smells and taste. And above I argued that a fetus in the first trimester can not sense these things. Form aggregate also includes life faculty which is the faculty that vitalizes the body and keeps it alive. An embryo in the first trimester (up to week 12) can not keep itself alive without the host body of it's mother. Form aggregate also includes mental base which the mind for Buddhists is not a simple unit, but a complex cooperative activity involving four factors: Feeling, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness: It can be argued that an embryo has consciousness though we don't know for sure and despite that a form must have all four to be considered a life if we follow the teachings on the five aggregates. And since an embryo does not have a fully formed and functioning brain and nervous system it can not register mental feelings, perceptions and mental formations.
Second Skandha: (Sensation or feeling). Which is being able to sense an object/phenomenon as either pleasant, neutral or negative. So given that an embryo in the first trimester doesn't have a fully formed brain and nervous system then they can not sense something as pleasurable, neutral or negative.
Third Skandha: (Perception, conception, appreciation, cognition, discrimination) Registers whether an object of phenomenon is recognized or not (for instance the sound of a bell, of the shape of a tree). This again requires a fully functioning brain, nervous system.
Fourth Skandha: (Mental formations, volition or conceptional factors). This includes all types of mental habits, thoughts, ideas, opinions, compulsions and decisions triggered by an object. Loving kindness is also considered a mental formation. These are not possible in the first trimester due to the lack of a fully developed brain and nervous system.
Fifth Skandha: (Consciousness). It is argued by some that consciousness is present from the minute of conception but that only fulfills one of the five skandhas/aggregates and according to the majority of sources that I've read all five must be present for something to be considered human life. In conclusion, I have submitted in this essay that an embryo (which is the potential human being) during the first trimester does not meet the requirements of all five skandha/aggregates and is therefore persmissable to believe in first trimester abortion as a Buddhist. I do not, however, agree with late term abortions except if the life of the mother is in jeopardy.
So I am for abortion during the first trimester and only for abortion in the second trimester in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk. In regards to the second trimester and rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk then I believe the middle path must be used to create these exceptions out of compassion for the mother. This is because the mother's life is extremely developed and would therefore experience more suffering than a child just being born with no life experience or even a sense of its presence in this world.
Imagine the suffering of a young woman forced to raise a child of her rapist or perpertator of incest. She would most likely not be capable emotionally or otherwise capable to raise that child with the love and caring that it needs to survive. Both mother and child would suffer needlessly. And suppose the child looks exactly like the perpetrator, both the mother and child would suffer greatly. The mother would re-experience and be reminded of the suffering she endured by that person with the same face as that child and chances are she'd avoid all connection with that child from subconscious self-protection. And the child would suffer from lack of love and caring on the mother's part.
Of course adoption is a more than acceptable way to go, however, many unwanted children needlessly suffer from being exported from one foster home to another where many foster parents are abusive and only take on the children for the financial gain. And besides, I do not believe it is my right to choose if a teen-age mother wishes to keep a rapist's child or one that came about via incest. And what kind of quality of life does an incest baby have? Most would be born with severe deformaties that would often die within a few months.
As for making the case for abortion in the second trimester and partial birth in regards to the life of the mother at risk the same argument for me applies because again like I argued above, the mother's life is extremely developed and would therefore experience more suffering than a child just being born with no life experience or even a sense of its presence in this world. And I especially support it when other children are already apart of the mother's life. It is not compassionate in my opinion to sacrifice the life of the mother (who is the main care-giver of the existing children) for the life of a fetus that has no idea of itself, nor that it is even alive.
The Dalai Lama has said about abortion that it should be a case by case evaluation. I don't believe in a world that is black and white, it simply does not exist. Yes, somethings are black and white but there is much grey area too. Simple observation and mindfulness reveals that truth in my mind.