While other religions seem to have a definition position on abortion I've never come across the Buddhist view on this. From a naive perspective I would imagine that Buddhists would be prolife rather then prochoice - the abstain from killing precept seems to be the relevant one. But I would imagine it would also depend on when Buddhist believe that life begins or becomes sentient.

Is there any pointers to the ethics of abortion in the scriptures (pali canon, mahayana etc..) or perhaps guidance/opinions from more contemporary teachers. I feel that the real position could be quite nuanced.

Many thanks for any/all thoughts

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    A better question would be "Does abortion causes bad Karma?". – Sankha Kulathantille Jun 25 '14 at 14:36

This is one of those questions that is complicated by that in the United States the conversation around abortion looks and feels very different than it does from other countries in the world. It is also made complex by the interaction of the ideology and the "situation on the ground," where things are usually quite complicated.

To quote Karma Lekshe Tsomo's excellent article Prolife, Prochoice: Buddhism and Reproductive Ethics:

In Buddhism, a primary guiding principle for ethical decision-making is the relief of suffering. It is clear that both abortion and restrictive abortion laws can cause great suffering for both mother and fetus. […]

In the end, most Buddhists recognize the incongruity that exists between ethical theory and actual practice and, while they do not condone the taking of life, do advocate understanding and compassion toward all living beings, a lovingkindness that is nonjudgmental and respects the right and freedom of human beings to make their own choices.

So to start with, we need separate "pro-life" (in the sense of being opposed to abortion) and "pro-choice" (in the sense of believing the state should restrict it). There are certainly Buddhists who are both pro-choice and anti-choice regardless of whether they are also "pro-life."

It is widely recognized in a variety of sources that, in the traditional Buddhist sources, the ensoulment occurs at conception. Bhikkhu Bodhi mentions in the book In the Buddha's Words that consciousness (or perhaps more precisely viññāṇa) begins "from the moment of conception," though I don't know where precisely in the texts this is defined to be the case.

We see that this translates to a "pro-life" and sometimes "anti-choice" attitude in the Theravada countries. Sri Lanka allows abortion to preserve the life of the woman but not for any other reason. Myanmar is similar. Thailand is slightly more permissive–especially since it allows for health of the mother under some circumstances and includes mental health–while still generally banning it.

In Peter Harvey's An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics we see analysis that indicates that:

It is clear, at the very least, that the great majority of Buddhists agree that abortion is killing a human being, and is an evil that should be avoided, other things being equal. A crucial issue, though, is how evil it is and what 'other things' can come to outweigh this evil, so that abortion comes to be seen as a 'necessary evil' in certain circumstances?

It is important to note that in some cases these laws were only written after contact with European societies (details in links, Peter Harvey indicates as well that, pre-colonial times, Burma/Myanmar "abortion was not liable for punishment"). It is also the case that, even where it is banned, the laws do not appear equivalent to murder. There's also a great deal of individual variation outside of the state laws, especially in Thailand, where 95% of the population is Buddhist but there's some popular support for more lenient abortion laws.

As far as I can tell, Tibetan Buddhism is similarly strongly opposed to the practice, but there's still some nuance around treating it, with the Dalai Lama saying in an interview with the NYT (from the above BBC article examining Buddhist views on abortion):

Of course, abortion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is an act of killing and is negative, generally speaking. But it depends on the circumstances.

If the unborn child will be retarded or if the birth will create serious problems for the parent, these are cases where there can be an exception. I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.

In Japan (and Korea per Harvey) it is much, much less restricted and the Japanese Buddhists are much more accepting of it. This was examined in the book Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism and Japan. It is notable that both US Buddhists and Japanese Buddhists tend to be much less opposed to abortion than other Buddhist groups.

This issue is explored further in Michael G. Barnhart's Buddhism and the Morality of Abortion, which notes that:

However, as Keown points out, (92) the cases dealt with involve women seeking abortions for questionable, perhaps self-serving, reasons including "concealing extramarital affairs, preventing inheritances, and domestic rivalry between co-wives." In short, if these are the paradigm examples of abortion, then the case is heavily biased against the practice.

In conclusion: We can say that, in general, Buddhism is opposed to abortion and believes that it incurs a significant karmic burden, especially Theravadan and Tibetan practice. Individuals and subgroups, meanwhile, especially in Japan and the United States, fall all along the spectrum with respect to:

  • The degree of problem.
  • What factors help to balance and to what extent they balance.
  • What precisely the state should do about it.

Regardless, the person who has had an abortion should be treated with compassion–not moral judgement–and it should be understood that the decision is pretty much universally a difficult one with a lot of complications and nuances.

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    This answer is very comprehensive and has very high academic value. The last part is especially wonderful "Regardless, the person who has had an abortion should be treated with compassion–not moral judgement–and it should be understood that the decision is pretty much universally a difficult one with a lot of complications and nuances."and I think being Buddhist we all should understand the complications involved and other answers over here suggest that we all do understand it. – sangharsh Jul 15 '14 at 9:39
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    This answer is most misleading and has less to do with what the Buddha taught, but simply reflects ethical compromises, which reflect the incapacity of the particular commenters to stick rather with the Dhamma as to tend to the worldlings view, for the sake of gaining. There is a clear message: not taking live. All aside are pushes of kilesas/defilements. The decision form a point of the Dhamma is a pretty simple one that does neither cost much time to think and burdens, nor will either hurt one self or others at the end. Abstaining form taking life, telling others to take life or approve it – Samana Johann Mar 16 '16 at 10:46
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    How is it misleading? The answer not only exposed what the texts teach, but also exposed how buddhists in different cultures and countries seem to perceive the subject. And it seems the question really did encompassed how buddhists deal with this issue, additionally to what has been taught in the texts. This answer, then, seem to have tackled all the points raised in the question. – Thiago Mar 16 '16 at 20:59

I would not know about the Buddhist community as a whole, but Dalai Lama once said that it is generally bad to kill even the fetus. He did give some room for context and circumstances though, for example if the mother is in danger.

As an answer, and from other sources I have seen, I would say that this is a pretty divisive subject, easier understood when we think of a Buddhist as a person that understands the difference between theory and practice.

It depends on the situation, really.

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I've heard that one contemporary teacher suggests that a couple can give up a baby for adoption directly after birth. He highlighted that nowadays there is a growing number of couples trying and failing to conceive a baby so it is rather sad that other couples next door abort new lives. In some countries it is possible to choose new parents before the child birth so the biological mother can be sure that her baby goes to good home. But overall the teacher admits that such decisions are very difficult and it takes lots of courage and maturity to choose this option.

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    Well meant practical thoughts to give alternatives and make it visible that there is and can never be a reason for killing. Sadhu! – Samana Johann Mar 16 '16 at 10:58
  • if it can be done in a loving way, as some cultures do, it is wonderful. If the society is one of shame, control or abuse of women this is not accessible. An open society of respect creates this loving alternative. Pro-choice gives this option more than a non-nuanced Pro-life argument. – Mishtook Apr 6 '18 at 16:31

Buddhists believe that life begins at conception(as told in the pali suttas) and therefore it technically is the breaking of the 1st precept/training rule for the non harming of beings.

I believe it is also illegal in buddhist countries like Sri Lanka. That being said however there is a right mindset in dealing with those who choose abortion. I like what Ajahn Brahm has to say about it, compassion, not judgment.


This may also be helpful : http://www.dhammatalks.net/Books7/Ajahn_Brahm_When_Does_Human_Life_Begin.pdf

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"I am only mentioning the Theravada belief here"

As Buddhism teaches birth happens far before physical birth.It happens when the Semen finds the egg and start the process of growing.so not only abortion,Taking a pill is a violation of the first (not killing and never supporting killing).

Buddhism is against any sort of killing


Hiring for murder

Assisting murder

Praising murder

killing unborn


telling others to kill

approving the act of killing

Female rights for abortion is a medical and a social issue and it has nothing to do with Karma!

"Please note that there is no instruction on anything described as bad Karma to be done in a acceptable way.Buddhism is a straight religion it does not take back what it says and it does not open back doors to people to get away with things.What you choose to do is yours to decide but you will have to take it with you from life to life."

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    Sadhu! Maybe Upasaka likes to add, that telling others to kill and approving the act of killing is the same downfall kamma (body, speech, mind). – Samana Johann Mar 16 '16 at 10:56
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    I see lots of web pages which say that "Buddhists believe that life begins when the egg is fertilised". What canonical doctrine is that based on? – ChrisW Mar 16 '16 at 16:36

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