When Life Begins

The sanc­tity of life is the core of our moral con­scious­ness. But ‘life’ has fuzzy edges. It is no easy mat­ter to de­fine pre­cisely where life, in the moral rather than bi­o­log­i­cal sense, be­gins and ends. For Buddhism this fuzzi­ness is nor­mal, for we are ac­cus­tomed to view the world in terms of in­ter­re­lated processes rather than in­de­pen­dent en­ti­ties. Yet our need for clar­ity in de­cid­ing del­i­cate moral ques­tions is no less. In this es­say I will an­a­lyze some strands of the de­bate on the in­cep­tion of life and the ethics of abor­tion. I will sug­gest that a Buddhist ap­proach pro­vides us with use­ful tools that can steer away from moral ex­trem­ism and fo­cus on a com­pas­sion­ate re­sponse to the real is­sues. For the sake of brevity I will limit my dis­cus­sion to the ethics of abor­tion. However we should rec­og­nize that many other pro­ce­dures, such as IVF, cloning, ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing, and stem-cell tech­nol­ogy also in­volve the de­struc­tion of em­bryos.

Discussion of the ethics of abor­tion has gen­er­ally, I be­lieve, been dom­i­nated by two ex­trem­ist po­si­tions. These are iden­ti­fied by the slo­gans ‘Life’ and ‘Choice’. In Buddhist thought these ideas are called ‘eter­nal­ism’ and ‘an­ni­hi­la­tion­ism’. The word ‘eter­nal­ism’ refers to the be­lief that the self ex­ists eter­nally. The word ‘an­ni­hi­la­tion­ism’ refers to the be­lief that the self will per­ish, usu­ally at death. In this es­say I will fo­cus on some in­flu­en­tial streams of thought within Christianity and sci­en­tific ma­te­ri­al­ism as promi­nent con­tem­po­rary ex­am­ples of these two ex­tremes.

The Eternal Soul and the Sanctity of Life

Christians typ­i­cally be­lieve that each hu­man pos­sesses a ‘soul’. This is a spir­i­tual en­tity, a spark of the life of God, which dis­tin­guishes hu­mans from all other be­ings, and grants hu­mans a unique eth­i­cal value. It is be­cause hu­mans pos­sess a soul that the de­lib­er­ate killing of a hu­man be­ing, usu­ally called ‘mur­der’, is such a ter­ri­ble crime. This soul en­ters the em­bryo at the mo­ment of con­cep­tion. From that point on, the em­bryo is in the moral sense a fully-fledged hu­man be­ing, de­serv­ing of the same moral con­sid­er­a­tion as you and I. To kill such a be­ing is mur­der.

Labeling abor­tion as ‘mur­der’ is a highly emo­tive strat­egy, and has led to ugly scenes where women who wished to have abor­tions were ha­rassed and abused. The use of the la­bel stems from the sim­ple de­f­i­n­i­tion of ‘mur­der’ as ‘the in­ten­tional killing of a hu­man be­ing’. If an em­bryo is a hu­man be­ing, to kill it must be mur­der. However the con­cept of ‘mur­der’ is not so cut and dried. There are many in­stances of ‘in­ten­tional killing of a hu­man be­ing’ that we do not call ‘mur­der’. When one sol­dier kills an­other in wartime we just call it ‘killing’, not mur­der. When a state kills a crim­i­nal we call it ‘ex­e­cu­tion’. When a per­son kills them­selves we call it ‘sui­cide’. So la­bel­ing abor­tion as ‘mur­der’ is ab­so­lutist and sim­plis­tic. It begs the ques­tion as to whether abor­tion is in­ten­tional killing of a hu­man be­ing in the rel­e­vant sense. The as­ser­tion that abor­tion is mur­der rests on a meta­phys­i­cal the­ory, and as such is in­her­ently un­prov­able. The ac­cep­tance of this the­ory is de­pen­dent on faith in re­vealed dog­mas as de­fined within a par­tic­u­lar re­li­gious com­mu­nity, and has no rel­e­vance out­side that com­mu­nity.

The Emergence of Consciousness

As we all know, re­cent years have seen most so­ci­eties move rapidly away from eter­nal­ist view­points such as Christianity to­wards the an­ni­hi­la­tion­ist per­spec­tive of sci­en­tific ma­te­ri­al­ism. It has be­come the new or­tho­doxy. While the eter­nal­ists de­rive our moral value from the pos­ses­sion of a soul, the ma­te­ri­al­ists typ­i­cally re­late moral value to con­scious­ness. We de­serve eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tion be­cause we are con­scious be­ings. So the ques­tion then be­comes, when does con­scious­ness arise?

Materialists be­lieve that the pri­mary sub­stance that makes up the world is mat­ter. In the right con­di­tions, mat­ter can evolve into the com­plex or­gan­isms that we call ‘life’. At a cer­tain level of com­plex­ity con­scious­ness emerges. Consciousness is thus re­garded as an ‘epiphe­nom­e­non’ of mat­ter. Many ma­te­ri­al­ists be­lieve that this con­scious­ness arises in the em­bryo in the third or fourth month of preg­nancy. Since our moral worth de­rives from this con­scious­ness, it is be­lieved that for the first three months the em­bryo is merely a piece of meat de­serv­ing of no moral con­sid­er­a­tion.

This process can be com­pared with the pic­ture on the screen of a tele­vi­sion set. The in­di­vid­ual parts do not con­tain even a lit­tle bit of the pic­ture. Rather, the pic­ture ap­pears in to­tal when the parts are put to­gether. It’s a com­pelling metaphor – but a mis­lead­ing one. In the case of a tele­vi­sion set, the parts are made sep­a­rately and then put to­gether. But in the case of a liv­ing be­ing our dif­fer­ent parts un­fold from the ge­netic in­for­ma­tion con­tained in the DNA. Each cell in­cludes the to­tal ge­netic in­for­ma­tion for the body. So it would seem more nat­ural to speak of a grad­ual un­fold­ing of the in­her­ent po­ten­tial of con­scious­ness. Moreover, in the case of a tele­vi­sion set the causal­ity is one-way. The tele­vi­sion set causes the pic­ture but the pic­ture doesn’t cause the tele­vi­sion set. Again the anal­ogy falls flat, be­cause in all or­di­nary states of con­scious­ness the body and the mind co-exist in a com­plex two-way re­la­tion­ship. The ef­fec­tive­ness of the anal­ogy stems from the un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tion that there is a lin­ear, one-way causal­ity from the brain to the mind. But that is the very ques­tion we are ask­ing.

When we ask why the ma­te­ri­al­ists be­lieve that con­scious­ness is an emer­gent prop­erty of mat­ter, we can see that this con­clu­sion fol­lows from the as­sump­tions of sci­en­tific method­ol­ogy it­self. Scientists will gen­er­ally only ac­cept ev­i­dence if it can be ‘ob­jec­tively’ proven and tested. But there can be no such thing as ‘ob­jec­tive’ proof, for the ac­cep­tance or re­jec­tion of a proof are men­tal acts, and men­tal events are nec­es­sar­ily sub­jec­tive. In prac­tice we set­tle for an ‘in­ter­sub­jec­tive ac­qui­es­cence’; that is, when there is suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence, ob­serv­able through the five ex­ter­nal senses, to con­vince a cer­tain sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. Scientific method is thus un­able, at present, to di­rectly in­ves­ti­gate the mind. All it can do is ex­am­ine ex­ter­nally ob­serv­able phe­nom­ena, such as be­hav­ior and brain ac­tiv­ity, and then in­fer cor­re­la­tions with the men­tal realm. So it comes as no sur­prise to find that the sci­en­tific the­ory of con­scious­ness also starts with the phys­i­cal realm and sees con­scious­ness emerg­ing from that. This the­ory is em­bod­ied in the as­sump­tions of sci­en­tific method and there­fore can­not be tested by that method. It is not an em­pir­i­cally fal­si­fi­able con­clu­sion, and hence is un­sci­en­tific. It is a meta­phys­i­cal spec­u­la­tion, an un­war­ranted in­fer­ence de­rived from the as­sump­tion that sci­en­tific method is the sole and suf­fi­cient means of un­cov­er­ing truth.

Avoiding the Extremes

These two par­a­digms for ap­proach­ing the ques­tion of the moral sta­tus of the em­bryo are ex­tremes. The eter­nal­ists hold that abor­tion is mur­der; the most heinous of crimes, while the an­ni­hi­la­tion­ists hold that it is of no moral con­se­quence what­so­ever. We can see that the two ex­tremes each of­fer a sim­ple, clear frame­work for un­der­stand­ing the ethics of abor­tion. This is why they re­main pow­er­ful and at­trac­tive ideas. We can also see that the con­clu­sions are counter-intuitive. Many of us feel that an em­bryo is de­serv­ing of moral con­sid­er­a­tion, yet we would hes­i­tate to equate abor­tion with mur­der. This is an ex­am­ple of how ab­so­lutist philo­soph­i­cal po­si­tions gen­er­ate moral ex­trem­ism. In prac­tice, we typ­i­cally set­tle for an un­easy com­pro­mise be­tween the two. This is no true ‘mid­dle way’ but is a po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ent dri­ven by so­cial ne­ces­sity. Unfortunately, the de­bate is usu­ally con­ducted on the level of moral con­vic­tions and sci­en­tific ev­i­dence with­out ad­dress­ing the un­der­ly­ing meta­phys­i­cal as­sump­tions. Too of­ten we balk at sub­ject­ing our most deeply cher­ished be­liefs, whether sci­en­tific or re­li­gious, to a search­ing in­quiry.

What can Buddhism of­fer us in this re­gard? Since Buddhism is a his­tor­i­cal re­li­gion, we should be­gin by ask­ing what the ear­li­est records of the Buddha’s teach­ings have to say. This is one way of ground­ing our dis­cus­sion in deeper strata of our moral con­scious­ness, not al­low­ing our­selves to be swept away by the tides of con­tem­po­rary opin­ion. Of course, we must still be pre­pared to sub­ject the tra­di­tional un­der­stand­ing to scrutiny in the light of mod­ern ev­i­dence.

The Pali canon con­tains sev­eral pas­sages deal­ing with the process of con­cep­tion in the womb and the ad­vent of con­scious­ness. The Maha Taṇhāsankhaya Sutta states that con­cep­tion is de­pen­dent on the com­ing to­gether of three things: the mother and fa­ther come to­gether; the mother is fer­tile; and the be­ing to be re­born is ready. The term ‘com­ing to­gether’ means ‘same place, same time’. Thus this pas­sage im­plies that con­scious­ness ap­pears at the time of con­cep­tion. The Maha Nidāna Sutta is even clearer. It states that if con­scious­ness does not en­ter the mother’s womb, men­tal­ity & phys­i­cal form can­not ‘co­ag­u­late’ in­side the womb. In yet an­other pas­sage, con­cep­tion is said to de­pend on the ‘six el­e­ments’, in­clud­ing con­scious­ness. All of these state­ments oc­cur in dis­cus­sions of the key doc­trine of de­pen­dent orig­i­na­tion and thus carry great au­thor­ity. In the monas­tic Vinaya, too, the ap­pear­ance of the em­bryo is equated with the aris­ing of the ‘first mind, the first con­scious­ness’ in the mother’s womb. Thus all of these con­texts treat con­cep­tion as in­volv­ing a com­bi­na­tion of men­tal and phys­i­cal fac­tors, with the men­tal fac­tors pri­mary. This of course re­flects the ba­sic phi­los­o­phy of Buddhism that mind is the fore­run­ner of all things.

So the texts state that con­scious­ness is present from the in­cep­tion of life. A be­ing who is con­scious can feel pain, and there­fore de­serves moral con­sid­er­a­tion. It goes with­out say­ing, how­ever, that the abil­ity of a newly con­ceived em­bryo to feel pain is very rudi­men­tary, per­haps com­pa­ra­ble to some­one in a deep coma or un­der a deep anaes­thetic. According to Buddhism these are states of con­scious­ness, but too dim to be no­ticed when com­pared with the glare of wak­ing con­scious­ness. The texts fre­quently speak of the ‘growth, in­crease, and ma­tur­ing’ of the newly re­born con­scious­ness. In ac­cor­dance with the find­ings of sci­ence, the texts speak of the grad­ual de­vel­op­ment of the embryo’s sense fac­ul­ties. But un­like the sci­en­tists, they do not as­sume that con­scious­ness does not ap­pear un­til the senses de­velop. So while the em­bryo cer­tainly de­serves moral con­sid­er­a­tion, its lim­ited ca­pac­ity to feel pain means that killing an em­bryo falls short of ‘mur­der’.

There is clear sup­port for this con­clu­sion in the Vinaya. This states that a monk or nun should never, for the whole of their life, in­ten­tion­ally kill a hu­man be­ing, ‘even to the ex­tent of caus­ing an abor­tion’. Similarly, they should not have sex­ual in­ter­course ‘even to the depth of a sesame seed’. They should not steal ‘even as much as a blade of grass’. They should not lay claim to spir­i­tual at­tain­ments ‘even by say­ing “I de­light in an empty dwelling”’. So abor­tion is clearly re­garded as in­ten­tional killing of a hu­man be­ing; yet it is the least se­ri­ous act of this kind.

So the Buddhist texts per­tain­ing to abor­tion pro­vide a clas­sic model for a ‘mid­dle way’, which ac­cepts some of the propo­si­tions of the ex­treme views, while avoid­ing their ab­so­lutist and sim­plis­tic con­clu­sions. Together with the eter­nal­ists we be­lieve that an em­bryo from the time of con­cep­tion is en­dowed with a non-physical prop­erty that en­ti­tles them to moral con­sid­er­a­tion. However we do not ac­cept that this prin­ci­ple is a spir­i­tual en­tity, a spark of God’s glory; nor do we ac­cept that this sup­posed ‘soul’ is a unique dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture of hu­man­ity. We be­lieve that it is a con­di­tioned stream of con­scious­ness, ever chang­ing and evolv­ing as it passes from life to life. Together with the an­ni­hi­la­tion­ists we be­lieve that the weight of moral con­sid­er­a­tion due to an em­bryo is not sta­tic, but grad­u­ally in­creases with the de­vel­op­ment of the embryo’s mind to­wards full aware­ness. However we do not ac­cept that it can be proved that the in­cep­tion of con­scious­ness takes place only af­ter three or four months. This is an eth­i­cally ar­bi­trary date which sim­ply marks the present day lim­its of sci­en­tific knowl­edge, but tells us noth­ing about the moral sta­tus of the em­bryo.

Why Believe in Rebirth?

So much for the tex­tual and the­o­ret­i­cal side. These con­sid­er­a­tions, of course, are only of di­rect rel­e­vance to the Buddhist com­mu­nity. Is there any way of em­pir­i­cally check­ing these ideas? According to Buddhism there two means – through di­rect ob­ser­va­tion of the process of re­birth, and through in­fer­en­tial un­der­stand­ing of the con­di­tioned evo­lu­tion of con­scious­ness in time. Direct ob­ser­va­tion is the psy­chic power to rec­ol­lect past lives, or else to per­ceive where be­ings are re­born. It seems that these abil­i­ties, which are nor­mally said to be the fruit of deep med­i­ta­tion, can in some peo­ple oc­cur spon­ta­neously. Children be­low the age of seven seem to of­ten be able to rec­ol­lect de­tails of their past life and death. Obviously these abil­i­ties are not gen­er­ally ac­cepted in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. But there would seem to be no the­o­ret­i­cal ob­sta­cle to sci­en­tific tests of such claims. For ex­am­ple, a num­ber of dif­fer­ent peo­ple who pro­fessed such pow­ers could be asked some ques­tions, and the an­swers could be checked against each other. Or else his­tor­i­cal data could be ex­tracted which could be checked against known records. There have al­ready been a num­ber of pos­i­tive stud­ies along these lines, al­though I do not know if they have any di­rect bear­ing on the ques­tion of the in­cep­tion of con­scious­ness. In any case, if ac­cu­rate and testable in­for­ma­tion can be ob­tained through such psy­chic pow­ers, it would seem rea­son­able to grant them a de­gree of cred­i­bil­ity.

According to Buddhism, the sec­ond way of con­firm­ing re­birth is through un­der­stand­ing the con­di­tioned orig­i­na­tion of con­scious­ness. We re­peat­edly con­tem­plate the aris­ing and pass­ing of con­scious­ness in the present mo­ment. We see how self­ish de­sires give rise to men­tal pro­lif­er­a­tion, and how let­ting go leads to peace. We ex­tend this prin­ci­ple to the past and the fu­ture, and in­fer that our con­scious­ness in this life arose be­cause of crav­ing in the past, and that as long as we do not com­pletely let go, we will con­tinue to gen­er­ate con­scious­ness in the fu­ture. This kind of un­der­stand­ing says noth­ing of the spe­cific de­tails of past lives, so can­not be tested by any sim­ple em­pir­i­cal means. But we can ask whether de­pen­dent orig­i­na­tion of­fers a mean­ing­ful and use­ful frame­work for deal­ing with the kinds of psy­cho­log­i­cal is­sues we face to­day. If the an­swer is yes, then again we should grant this teach­ing a de­gree of cred­i­bil­ity.

For Buddhists, how­ever, such proofs re­main sec­ondary. Most Buddhists be­lieve in re­birth be­cause it is an in­trin­sic strand in the fab­ric of their world. They ac­cept the world-view of Buddhism be­cause they be­lieve it is ben­e­fi­cial for them­selves and their so­ci­ety. The teach­ings form a co­her­ent and ra­tio­nal whole. So when they see the more ba­sic eth­i­cal teach­ings con­firmed in their own lives, they are will­ing to take the more ab­stract tenets on trust. They would no more think of em­pir­i­cally test­ing such tenets than you or I would think of em­pir­i­cally test­ing the Theory of Relativity. We ac­cept the Theory of Relativity – in­so­far as we un­der­stand it at all – be­cause of our faith in sci­ence. These days there are many peo­ple all over the world, Buddhists and non-Buddhists, who be­lieve in re­birth. It is likely that their num­bers will in­crease as Buddhism be­comes rec­og­nized as of­fer­ing a mean­ing­ful and sat­is­fy­ing way of liv­ing and dy­ing.

The Social Dimension

The pri­mary con­cern of this es­say has been to in­ves­ti­gate the philo­soph­i­cal ba­sis for a Buddhist ethic of abor­tion. However I may per­haps be for­given for ven­tur­ing out of my sphere of com­pe­tence so far as to of­fer some thoughts re­gard­ing the so­cial di­men­sion of this ethic. It is ap­par­ent that in many coun­tries abor­tion has been tech­ni­cally il­le­gal, yet un­of­fi­cially sanc­tioned and wide­spread. We should un­der­stand that Buddhists do not gen­er­ally ac­cept that if some­thing is wrong it must nec­es­sar­ily be made il­le­gal. Such mat­ters must be con­sid­ered in their so­cial con­text. Making abor­tion il­le­gal makes crim­i­nals out of women who may of­ten be go­ing through a trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence. And it leaves the mar­ket wide-open to un­scrupu­lous prac­ti­tion­ers

I would sug­gest that a more hu­mane ap­proach would be to make abor­tion and other such tech­nolo­gies le­gal, but very closely mon­i­tored. We must en­sure that we, and our sons and daugh­ters, are pro­vided with all the in­for­ma­tion, guid­ance, and sup­port we need to en­able us to make such life and death de­ci­sions re­spon­si­bly. Children should be given ex­plicit and thor­ough ed­u­ca­tion at school in the rel­e­vant bi­o­log­i­cal, sex­ual, eth­i­cal, and re­li­gious is­sues. When a woman seeks an abor­tion, she and the fa­ther should be pro­vided with de­tailed in­for­ma­tion and per­sonal coun­sel­ing be­fore mak­ing the fi­nal de­ci­sion. Our so­ci­ety must ac­cept that ad­dress­ing the is­sue of abor­tion in­volves not just mak­ing moral judge­ments and pro­vid­ing med­ical ser­vices, but also ed­u­ca­tion in con­tra­cep­tion and in re­spon­si­ble re­la­tion­ships. We must of­fer women a mean­ing­ful al­ter­na­tive through ad­e­quate child sup­port and so­cial ser­vices.

One im­pli­ca­tion of the grad­u­al­ist ap­proach to this ques­tion is that the moral grav­ity and kam­mic con­se­quences of car­ry­ing out an abor­tion will in­crease each day as the preg­nancy con­tin­ues. Thus it is im­per­a­tive that we read, dis­cuss, and think about the is­sues be­fore an un­wanted preg­nancy oc­curs. This will hope­fully help us to act more re­spon­si­bly, to con­sider the is­sues with a clearer mind, and to make a ma­ture, rea­soned de­ci­sion with­out un­due de­lay.

Even those who be­lieve that abor­tion is merely a sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dure must ac­knowl­edge that on the emo­tional level abor­tion is quite dif­fer­ent from other med­ical pro­ce­dures. Many women feel that a child has come to them, that a spe­cial be­ing has cho­sen their body to grow into new life, and they have thrust it away. If the mother de­cides to have an abor­tion, there should be close sup­port and mon­i­tor­ing of her emo­tional health af­ter the op­er­a­tion. To help heal any emo­tional wounds we can en­cour­age the mother to ask for­give­ness from the be­ing who chose to be her child, to spread lov­ing kind­ness, and to un­der­take some pos­i­tive, heal­ing acts of gen­eros­ity and help­ing oth­ers.

I would very much like to see a study of the ef­fects of abor­tion on the emo­tional land­scapes of women, and a com­par­i­son be­tween women who de­cided to have an abor­tion and women who had un­wanted preg­nan­cies but de­cided to bear a child. How do they feel af­ter­wards? Five years later? Ten years later? How many moth­ers would, when their child had grown up, say that they wished they had had an abor­tion?

Living Wisdom, Choosing Compassion

So in this es­say I have at­tempted to sketch an out­line of a Buddhist ap­proach to abor­tion. I ex­am­ined some of the pre­vail­ing ar­gu­ments and con­cluded that the po­lar­iza­tion of po­si­tions into ‘Life’ and ‘Choice’ can be traced back to in­com­pat­i­ble philo­soph­i­cal par­a­digms, such as the eter­nal­ist view­point of the Christians and the an­ni­hi­la­tion­ism of the sci­en­tific ma­te­ri­al­ists. Buddhism of­fers a mid­dle way that trea­sures the sanc­tity of the life in the mother’s womb from the time of con­cep­tion, yet rec­og­nizes a grad­ual growth in the moral grav­ity of the act of killing. On the prac­ti­cal side, we must em­ploy the twin virtues of com­pas­sion and wis­dom, pro­vid­ing care and sup­port for moth­ers and chil­dren, and en­sur­ing the par­ents are pro­vided with the in­for­ma­tion and ad­vice they need to make a ma­ture de­ci­sion. I would like to fin­ish with a verse from the Mangala Sutta.

Service to mother and fa­ther,
Cherishing of spouse and child,
Ways of work with­out con­flict:
This is the high­est bless­ing.

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