By Neil Schmitzer-Torbert
In the last few months, as struggles in the U.S. have intensified over access to abortion, I have found myself conflicted as I reflect on the logic of my own attitudes.
On the one hand, I see that access to abortion is an important part of reproductive medicine. However, I can appreciate that drawing a single, firm line to define when abortions could be allowed is difficult. The life of a living thing begins when conditions are right, and will come to an end when conditions change. Much as a whirlpool emerges from the turbulent flow of a river, we exist as a temporary, dynamic structure.
Our life is never really separate from the universe in the same way that a whirlpool is not separate from the water of the river. As every whirlpool stills eventually, it is natural for each life to come to an end, but I also believe that it is also natural, and right, to cherish our time as a living being–each life is a precious treasure.
Our human life, from conception to birth and beyond, is a process without sharp transitions. Each life takes its shape and structure gradually, much as a whirlpool begins with a gentle rotation, and only slowly takes its mature form.
Thinking about abortion as a Zen practitioner, one piece that I found very helpful was by Sallie Jiko Tisdale in Tricycle magazine titled, “Is There a Buddhist View on Abortion?” Tisdale considers the tension that we see in some Buddhist traditions, observing:
“… the conclusion of Orthodox Buddhist scholars has long been that a human being appears at the moment of conception. Because human birth is a rare and precious gift, to deprive a being of the opportunity is a grave mistake. Therefore, a one-day-old embryo must be accorded the same protection as living human beings.” (Tisdale)
However, she comments that this view, of the sanctity of human life, contrasts with some Buddhist teachings that human life is impure, or to be avoided:
“Traditional Buddhism is anti-birth, based in a celibate and solitary life outside the family. Sexual desire is said to turn the wheel of samsara, and procreative sex is a greater transgression for a monastic than nonprocreative sex. The uterus is a disgusting place and babies begin to decay at birth, yet women are told to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the embryo… A human body is so rare and precious that we must protect it from the day of conception? … Wouldn’t the highest form of practice be to create more opportunities for human birth?” (Tisdale)
In her essay I was struck by the line, “wouldn’t the highest form of practice be to create more opportunities for human birth?” I put this question to myself: if to live as a human is a precious gift, then do we have an ethical obligation to increase human life? You can find similar arguments in other religious traditions, where procreation can be framed as a duty (I think of the conservative Christian Quiverfull movement which received attention a few years back).
Personally, neither position, that procreation is a duty or that is it an evil, resonates with me. In the end, what is the real difference between these extremes?
Our human life is a rare opportunity. As we look out into the universe around us we see great beauty, but we have not yet seen other people, intelligent beings, looking back at us. Our own galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars. While there may be others that have planets with life on them, and even intelligent life, the universe does not appear to be bursting with life. Across the universe, life, and intelligent life, seems to be rare. The flowering of the universe plays out in many places to an empty room.
The life that we have on this planet, then, seems to be a remarkable gift. And, it would have been a terrible shame, I think, if the course of the river of the universe had run entirely straight, with not a single whirlpool.
How tragic would it be if not one person could take a deep and authentic delight in this world?
On the other hand, what if the river of the universe was chaotic, churning rapids full of whirlpools that came into a crowded existence as they interfere with one another, full of suffering? There also seems to be no benefit to bringing life into a world that will not support it. Influenced by my Zen practice, I would love to see the universe more full of life, bursting with it, but only if we can bring an end to suffering, to dukkha.
As Paul Broks wrote in his book, Into the Silent Land, “to disturb someone from a state of non-existence is a terrible responsibility.”
Broks was not advising us to avoid this responsibility, rather, it felt to me like a celebration of the preciousness of life–of the seriousness of creation and the responsibility we have to children. That resonates with me as a parent. I enjoy so much the delight that children take in the world and in all of the possibilities that their futures hold.
And I am afraid, too, of where some of those paths may lead. The responsibility of a parent is awe-inspiring, momentous.
Any conversations we have about abortion, about reproductive medicine in general, should be grounded in this responsibility to our children and to all of the children who we have called out of the void of non-existence. I don’t think that rigid rules (allowing or restricting abortion or any other reproductive medicine) will entirely satisfy this responsibility.
In this vein, I have appreciated a passage in Kōshō Uchiyama’s book, Opening the Hand of Thought, where he describes advising a young woman to get an abortion. Uchiyama felt that ending the pregnancy was wrong, but he also believed that it was the right thing to do in her case. And, if she would have suffered negative consequences for that decision, he was willing to suffer right along side of her.
“It’s not enough for a bodhisattva of the Mahayana to just uphold the precepts. There are times when you have to break them, too. It’s just that when you do, you have to do so with the resolve of also being willing to accept whatever consequences might follow.” (Uchiyama)
I feel that our responsibility is to care for life.
I feel we should nurture the flower that is human existence for as long as it can bloom, and that we help humans, and all sentient beings, escape from suffering and to take delight in existence.
In the end, I don’t know what our laws specifically about abortion should be. However, our responsibility, one of the bodhisattva’s vows, is to free all sentient beings from duhkha (suffering). Knowing how to act skillfully in any specific case will require our complete engagement, and may lead us to avoid simple rules.
Neil Schmitzer-Torbert began to study Zen as a high school student, after encountering a copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, and attended the Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis for several years while he was a graduate student in neuroscience. Since 2006, he has taught in the Wabash College Psychology department in Crawfordsville, IN, and recently began sharing essays reflecting on Zen practice and science on his site: https://neuralbuddhist.com.
Editor: Amy Cushing
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