Question: You mention abortion. What is the Buddhist view of contraception and abortion?
Answer: That is simple. Sentient life begins when consciousness enters the womb, i.e. the moment of conception. Contraception merely prevents the consciousness from entering, so this is acceptable. However, abortion is murder. Abortion is explicitly mentioned in the Vinaya Pitaka as a most serious offense. The Buddhist prohibition against abortion is absolutely clear and unequivocal. Make no mistake about that.
Question: What about therapeutic abortion, to save a mother’s life, or to terminate a triploidic fetus, for example.
Answer: I do not know the answer. By triploidic fetus, I assume you are referring to chromosome trisomies like 13, 18, 21, 22, and so forth. Life expectancy of some of these, like Down Syndrome babies, is forty to fifty years, assuming there are no major heart defects. Edwards’ Syndrome babies survive only a few months. Patau’s Syndrome babies usually die within six months. I really do not know how to assess this, as it is a fine moral point. It would seem that, in the events you postulate, we are making a judgment about the relative worth of one life over another life. I do not know how to do this. We are also making a quality of life judgment.
If, for example, we fail to terminate a fetus with trisomy of chromosome 13—which occurs in about one out of every 5,000 births—we are running a seventy percent chance that the baby will die in six months, and about an eighty percent chance that the baby will not survive beyond one year. Regardless of survival, the baby will be severely deformed, and severely retarded. These cases are horrible. They can tear out your heart.
Still, how do we know that we benefit this being by terminating its suffering? Maybe we benefit the parents, but do we really benefit this miserable creature? This is a decision we make for ourselves.
Speaking hypothetically, I might terminate that fetus and take the karmic consequences, whatever they may be. You might have another idea. I cannot say that I am right and you are wrong. Maybe we are both right. Maybe we are both wrong.
The issue of saving a mother’s life offers the same moral dilemma. How do we benefit one life at the cost of another? A large number of women have died giving birth to healthy babies that lived long, productive lives. We interfere in another’s karma on this point. Again, are we right or wrong?
There is also the issue of miracles and mistakes. We may be operating on mistaken information. We may be forestalling a miracle. In medicine, as I am pleased to assure you, miracles happen more frequently than you might suppose. I have seen such strange, unimaginable things, that I conclude anything is possible. Regardless of how many points we raise, the issue comes down to cause and effect. The broad issue is karma. The narrow question is this: do we, as individual human beings, have the moral duty and the ethical right to intercede in another sentient being’s karmic continuum to the extent of terminating that being’s life?
If we read the narratives of the Bodhisattvas’ lives, or the Buddha’s former lives, we find instances where the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas have gone to this extent. I once asked Kalu Rinpoche a question along this line. He responded by telling the famous story that demonstrates a Bodhisattva’s willingness to risk his own karma; killing a person, in order to prevent that person from creating very negative karma.
Suppose you are a policeman. You walk into a store and you find the storekeeper holding a gun on a thief, while the thief is holding a gun on the storekeeper. You draw your own weapon. What do you do now? Do you shoot the thief to prevent him from shooting the storekeeper? Do you shoot the storekeeper to prevent him from shooting the thief? Do you order them both to lay down their weapons? What if they refuse? Will you shoot them? What if one of them shoots you? How do you know who is the storekeeper and who is the thief?
The thing is, there is no single right answer to any or all of these questions. These are matters beyond right and wrong, beyond the law of men. These are matters of the law of karma.
Decisions to take life cannot be based on compassion alone.
These decisions cannot be made solely on best intentions.
These decisions must be accompanied by wisdom and insight.
It is also important to remember that regardless of the intention, the degree of compassion, and the degree of wisdom and insight involved, the actions born of such decisions will earn certain results.