Ever since the US Supreme Court put abortion rights on the chopping block, back in June 2022, we have been examining where exactly major religions of the world stand on abortion. To our pleasant surprise, none of the foundational sources of all three Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, prohibit abortion. In fact, an overwhelming majority of interpretations of sources in all three gives a clear precedence to maternal life over fetal rights.
First, we placed Christianity under the lens of Abortion Rights and determined exactly where the currently aggressively conservative stance against abortion stemmed from. We contrasted it with interpretations of actual, pertinent Bible verses to disentangle it from later Catholic dogma. Next, we examined both original sources and various interpretations of relevant sources in both Judaism and Islam.
We continue our quest to trace pro-abortion attitudes and cultural practices around the world today by placing major oriental religions under our lens.
Tracing Pro-abortion Stances in Hinduism
Hinduism is the world’s most ancient religion which is still widely practiced, dating back at least 4000 years based on archeological evidence. Various ancient Indian literary works are considered foundational texts in this religion, including the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramanaya, and the Puranas. This literature forms the basis for the Hindu way of life, sets of beliefs, and religious injunctions and rituals.
Is Hinduism Pro-life or Pro-abortion?
Practices and Beliefs in Hinduism vary and leave it open to diversity, but one common thread remains central: death is not the opposite of life, but the opposite of birth. Through the natural action-reaction, cause-effect inclination of the universe, called Karma, all living souls once born stay trapped in the cyclic process of birth and rebirth through the process of reincarnation. There is only one way to break this cycle: to achieve eternal salvation, called moksha.
Every soul conceived in this world has the right to redeem itself through karma by striving for moksha. Killing this soul in vitro, that is before birth, deprives it of that chance. Therefore, the most strict interpretations in Hinduism regard abortions as a sin and consider it equivalent to killing a born human.
It would be easy to relegate Hinduism to the Pro-life category, but that’s not what we find when we look at the actual practice of Hinduism. Nuances exist and rationales that guide pro-abortion practices are widely accepted at all levels of Hindu culture.
The Abortion Stance in Hinduism as a Practiced Religion
One of the strongest principles in Hinduism after Karma is Ahimsa, which is non-violence. Scholars of Hindu bioethics such as Kiarash Aramesh, have cited it as a rationale for allowing abortion where saving a mother’s life is necessary.
Another important point is the diversity ethic of Hinduism which, at least theoretically, holds religious freedom supreme for both peoples at large and at the individual level. Thus, in practice, abortion with acceptable perpetuating reasons has become a generally permissible practice in India and is widely considered a matter of personal ethics.
In fact, the national law of India recently made huge inroads in making the facility of abortion even more far-reaching for its people. Indian-origin writer, Dheepa Sundaram, enlightens us:
“Failed contraception is considered an acceptable reason for approving an abortion. Women may seek abortions at up to 24 weeks’ gestation in cases of sexual abuse, incest, fetal abnormalities, rape, disability or if the pregnant person is a minor. All abortions are covered by government health care and are performed in public and private facilities.”Dheepa Sundaram, Religion News Serivce, May 2022.
The irony is that this ruling was passed on 29 September 2022, within months of the US Supreme Court’s ruling in the opposite direction. The Indian Supreme Court held:
“[T]he right of every woman to make reproductive choices without undue interference from the state is central to the idea of human dignity. Deprivation of access to reproductive healthcare or emotional and physical wellbeing also injures the dignity of women.”Indian Supreme Court, Decision on Civil Appeal No. 5802 of 2022, 29 September, 2022
Tracing Pro-abortion Stances in Buddhism
Buddhism, the second-most ancient human religion still practiced widely, has a clear origin point: Siddhartha Gautama.
Siddhartha was a prince in India. Disillusioned with the constant suffering, pain, and death he saw around him, he left his home and chose an ascetic way of life. But he remained unsatisfied until he settled on “the Middle Way,” between the two extremes of extravagance and asceticism. He eventually achieved nirvana under the Bodhi tree (the tree of awakening) and is remembered since as the Buddha. His teachings laid the foundation of Buddhism.
In Buddhist understanding, the essence of human life is suffering and the way to escape is to achieve the state of enlightenment called nirvana. It is a heaven-like state of perfect peace and happiness. There is no scripture, literary epics, or deities to worship. There is only a prescriptive way of life to aid in the journey to nirvana.
Are Buddhist Teachings Pro-abortion or Anti-abortion?
The Buddhist conception of life and soul is similar to Hinduism, finding an embryo as sacred as a born human. But then there is the Middle Way and in practice, most Buddhist teachers and practitioners recommend a solution between the two extremes of pro-life and pro-choice.
Some scholars have recommended leaving the decisions to the pregnant woman. Others recommend it must depend on the specifics of the case, and that there can be no general stricture for it. Generally, the principle of no harm always holds preventing unwanted pregnancies as always superior to terminating them. In sum, Siralee Sirilai, a scholar of Buddhism at Mahidol University of Bangkok, points out that “the main Buddhist criterion for moral decision-making is whether or not the act has wholesome motivation.”
This view was supported by the former Dalai Lama as well in an interview with the New York Times:
“Of course, abortion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is an act of killing and is negative, generally speaking. But it depends on the circumstances… I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.”Dalai Lama, New York Times, 28/11/1993
Such humanistic and holistic abortion attitudes explain the very high rates of abortion found in all primarily Buddhist Asian countries such as Thailand and Japan.
Pro-abortion Attitudes and Practices in Confucianism
Confucianism is the philosophy and system of beliefs behind much of Chinese culture. It can be traced to Confucius who lived 500 years before Christ. His disciples recorded his thoughts on moral principles and ethics in personal and government behavior in The Analects.
Because of his concern with government structure, his system allows for unequal relationships between various orders and positions inside families, communities, and nations, albeit with balance and harmony between them. Abortion would seem at odds with this, but Confucianism extends compassion and dignity as much to the pregnant woman as to the unborn human.
“A simple prohibition against abortion would drive many women to despair and the pursuit of desperate means, often with tragic results. It would also express a distressing lack of concern for the women within our society who must face difficult decisions about unwanted pregnancies… A simple prohibition against abortion would drive many women to despair and the pursuit of desperate means, often with tragic results. It would also express a distressing lack of concern for the women within our society who must face difficult decisions about unwanted pregnancies.”Philip J. Ivanhoe, A Confucian Perspective on Abortion, Dao, Vol. 9, 2010, Springer.
Tracing Abortion Stances in Sikhism
Sikhism, called Gurmat in Punjabi, emerged in the late 15th century in the Punjab region of the then-undivided India. Guru Nanak, who laid the foundation of the religion, transferred his spirit through a succession of Gurus, ultimately believed to reside permanently in the holy book Guru Granth Sahib after the passing of the 10th Guru, Gobind Singh, at the start of the 18th century. The central principle of Sikhism is to develop a “saint warrior” character that fuses one’s spirituality with courageous action in the real world.
Approach to Abortion in Sikhism
Life begins at conception for Sikhs, but their code of conduct does not directly deal with abortion. Some scholars consider it forbidden, but in practice abortions are common. To clarify, Sikh Research Institute conducted a global survey covering nearly 1300 self-identifying Sikhs from 28 different countries. Researchers found:
“Overall, the responses outlined that members of the global Sikh Panth take into account Sikhi, science, and personal life experience when forming opinions about the issue of abortion… Although Gurmat considers the act of consensual conception to be a Divine act, the majority of respondents believe life begins at some time after conception, and that health issues are the number one reason that women seek abortions. The survey responses highlighted a clear belief that Sikh institutions should play some role in providing support and resources for those considering abortion, but that ultimately the decision is the individual’s alone.”Harinder Singh & Jasleen Kaur, Sikhi and Abortion, State of the Panth, Report 5, Sikh Research Institute
Tracing Abortion Rights in Other Eastern Religions
Jainism is a derivative of Hinduism but distinct, and emerged 500 years before Christ. Zoroastrianism originated in 1500 BC with the prophet Zarathustra. It prospered in historical Persia, now Iran, and in parts of India where its followers are known as Parsis. Jainism has a belief in the immortality of all souls, and that Ahisma (non-violence), Satya (truth), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (fidelity to spouse), and Aparigraha (non-attachment) help liberate the soul from suffering.
The teachings of Zoroastrianism originate from Zarathustra’s faith “of an epic battle between a powerful deity and an evil spirit, in which his followers should do everything in thoughts, words, and deeds to aid the side of light.” The tradition was passed down orally and later put down in the holy text Avesta.
Abortion Attitudes in Jainism
Jainism is not a “prescriptive” religion, so beliefs about abortion are derived from general teachings. The principle of Karma finds ensoulment since conception and prohibits abortion, supported by Ahimsa, non-violence. However, in circumstances where the pregnant stands to suffer harm if the pregnancy continued are also seen as violating Ahimsa.
The thinking is simple: non-violence for the fetus should not have to mean violence for the pregnant. A necessary abortion is thus considered an act of self-defense or self-protection. In the same vein, family planning and contraception are also considered as the path of minimum non-violence by effectively avoiding the need for necessary abortions later.
“Jain youth don’t need to take an absolute stance on abortion in every situation, especially since a lot of the facts surrounding an individual woman’s choice are deeply personal. Instead, we should understand that being a responsible Jain requires us to look a little deeper on Ahimsa in a Pro-Choice world. Considering different perspectives before making decisive conclusions is imperative, and seen this way, I think it’s possible to believe in Ahimsa as well as a woman’s right to choose.”Ayush Bhansali, Ahimsa in a Pro-Choice World, Young Jains of America, Medium.
The Abortion Stance of Zoroastrianism
The Zoroastrianism scripture cites the point of the ensoulment of an embryo to be four months (Anquetil II, 563). According to Vendidad 15.9-16, abortion was practiced with the help of specific plants but was regarded as murder. In the evolution of Zoroastrian thought, however, the principle of humaneness and equality of all members of its community has rendered the approach to abortion as rational and deferring to science. When science prescribes a course of action for pregnant women that includes abortion, it is considered appropriate in this religion.
Tracing Abortion Rights in Oriental Religions: Conclusions
In our last survey on Islam and Judaism abortion stances, we found both religions broadly considerate of maternal needs and rights, even while holding an embryo nearly as sacred as a born human. We find a similar case in the oriental religions.
It seems that it is easy to be considerate of a pregnant person’s needs in seeking abortion when your system of thought extends an equivalence of sympathy and significance to all members of its following.