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.
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