Born and To-Be-Born (Metta Sutta #16)

This is a part of a series going line by line from the Metta Sutta. It starts here.

Those living near and far away

Those born and to-be-born,

Abortion is just as controversial in the Buddhist world as it is the world at large. In many Buddhist countries abortion is either illegal or extremely restricted, and overwhelmingly traditional Buddhist societies consider abortion to be immoral. Most Western Buddhists, on the other hand, come from a more liberal perspective and are much more likely to support a woman’s right to choose.

The verse above simply teaches us to practice loving kindness for the baby in a mother’s womb. I find nothing controversial there. As a father I felt very tenderly for that little worm twisting around on my wife’s sonogram. There was a little part of me dancing around on the screen!

As to the more complicated larger question of abortion in general, some facts:

  • The Buddha definitely teaches that monks are not to help a woman get an abortion or even suggest that she might want to get one.

  • The Buddha gave no teaching on whether or how a state or community should restrict or regulate abortion.

  • The Vinaya says, ““(Human life begins) when in the mother’s womb, the first citta (‘mind’ or ‘thought’) arises, when the first consciousness manifests”. (trans. Ajahn Brahm)

For Ajahn Brahm, this last means that abortion is not problematic in the earlier stages or pregnancy when the embryo is nothing but a cluster of cells. Life begins not at fertilization but with consciousness. This seems about right to me.

Among cosmopolitan Buddhist teachers, there is generally an attitude that, “Well, it’s never a good thing, sometimes it’s a necessary thing, and sometimes it’s the best of two bad choices.” Again, I think this is a pretty good outlook. Here in samsara, most of our choices involve both good and bad kamma, not purely good or bad.

Once the decision is made, it is up to us to practice metta for the mother, regardless of her choice and regardless of our preferences.

The next post in this series is here.

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