Hindu Ethics on the Moral Question of Abortion
- Edward Omar Moad
University of Missouri - Columbia
601 S. Providence #707I, Columbia, MO 65203, USA
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2004), 149-50.
In the West, especially in the United States, the debate over the issue of abortion is one of the most controversial subjects of the day. The arguments employed by each side commonly originate from theological sources on the one hand, and scientific sources on the other. Part of the reason for the position of this controversy, among others, in the western public consciousness is that it has implications affecting the moral value of human life, the source of that value, and the question over when a human being can be said to acquire this value. Thus, the argument usually ends up turning around whether life begins at conception, at birth, or at some point in between. There are arguments over the difference between living beings in general and persons, what constitutes personhood as an entitlement to rights, and so on. Taking a look at the issue from a global perspective, it becomes apparent that the ways in which these debates develop are fundamentally shaped by the cultural context in which they are held.
In the United States, for example, the argument is almost always centered on the western concept of inalienable rights. It is the "rights of the unborn" against the "rights of women". Fathers and grandparents are often eager to assert their rights as well. Dealing with social issues like abortion on a cross-cultural level requires one to temporarily transcend, as much as possible, the cultural context within which one is immersed. Failure to do so can be the cause of a number of blunders, the most common of which, in connection with our topic, is the quixotic and uneducated reactions that are frequently expressed toward, for example, China's one-child policy. The purpose of this paper will be to ascertain the traditional view of abortion in India, and explore, as much as possible, the context of religious and ethical values and rationale behind it.
Perhaps the best place to begin would be at that most important question in the western abortion debate: when does the life of a human being become sacred? Or to put it in metaphysical terms, when does the fetus receive a soul? This way, an important difference in the Hindu cultural context surrounding the issue will become clear; specifically, that such a question is almost irrelevant. Nevertheless, it is not an unanswered one.
The Hindu view of a person is a central theme of the Hindu scriptures. Basically, it is a dualistic model consisting of atman (roughly, spirit), and prakrti (matter). According to the Caraka Samhita, a Hindu medical text, the soul is already joined with matter in the act of conception. The soul is described as descending "...into the union of semen and (menstrual) blood in the womb in keeping with the (karmically produced) psychic disposition (of the embryonic matter)."<>  Though there are a few differing traditions on this matter (the Garbha Upanishad claims that ensoulment takes place in the seventh month), they are considered to be based on weaker evidence, and the mainstream of Hindu thought coincides with this position. Thus, the traditional Hindu view of the time of ensoulment is similar to that expressed by Thomas Aquinas, for example. However, there are important differences in other aspects. The Visnu Purana describes consciousness in the womb:
"An individual soul (jantu), possessing a subtle body (sukumaratanu), resides in his mother's womb (garbha), which is imbued with various sorts of impurity (mala). He stays there being folded in the membrane surrounding the foetus (ulba). . . He experiences severe pains. . . tormented immensely by the foods his mother takes. . . incapable of extending (prasarana) or contracting (akuncana) his own limbs and reposing amidst a mud of faeces and urine, he is in every way incommoded. He is unable to breathe. Yet, being endowed with consciousness (sacaitanya) and thus calling to memory many hundreds (of previous) births, he resides in his mother's womb with great pains, being bound by his previous deeds."
The obvious difference between this Hindu description of life in the womb and that perceived in the west arises from the concept of reincarnation. The soul in the womb is not a new soul. Rather it contemplates its previous births. Thus, the hiatus in the womb is not seen in nearly as positive a light as it is in western thought. It is painful, torturous, and repulsive; the evil result of attachment to physical existence displayed in one's past lives. In the Hindu context, the purpose of life as a human being is to make progress toward liberation from rebirth. The most important thing for each soul is the unfolding of its karmic destiny toward this goal. Abortion can obstruct this unfolding, and therefore it is condemned, but for vastly different reasons than it is in the west.
The practice of abortion is negatively referred to in the earliest Hindu scriptures, the Vedas. These texts comprise the sruti, those scriptures considered to have primary authority in Hindu thought. In the Rg Samhit, possibly originating from before 1200 BC, Visnu is called "protector of the child-to-be", implying that the fetus was deserving of even divine reverence. Meanwhile, the Atharva Veda expresses the following explicit pleas regarding those who perform abortions:
"With what bonds the overslaughed one is bound apart, applied and tied up on each limb - let them be released, for they are releasers; wipe off difficulties, O Pushan, on the embryo slayer." VI-112.3
"Enter thou after the beams, the smokes, O evil; go unto the mists or also the fogs; disappear along those foams of the rivers: wipe off difficulties, O Pushan, on the embryo slayer." VI-113.2
Evidently, the "embryo slayer" is seen as a suitable candidate to bear the sufferings and sins of the rest of the Vedic community. The Satapatha Brahmana compares the reputation of those who eat beef with those who perform abortions, while in the Upanisads they are placed in a category with thieves and outcastes.
The later smrti texts also contain injunctions against abortion, as well as protections for pregnant women. In the Visnudharmasutra, killing either fetus or mother is equated to the worst crime possible in Hindu society, killing a Brahman. Ferrymen and toll-collectors are prescribed punishment for collection from pregnant women. The Mahabharata, likewise, lists expectant mothers among a group that one must "give way to" that includes Brahmin, cows, and kings.
The worst penalty that could be inflicted upon a member of traditional Hindu society was to lose one's caste. This effectively removed one from the social structure altogether, and even had tragic implications on one's prospects for spiritual liberation. The Gautamadharmasutra tells us that two crimes that call for a woman to have her caste revoked are sexual relations with a man of lower caste, and abortion. Though the abortion of the fetus of a Brahmin is punishable by more extreme penalties than that of a slave, even those who perform abortions on slaves were fined. This difference in treatment reflects the belief that Brahmins were at a stage closer to spiritual liberation, and thus the uniquely Hindu rationale against abortion.
Hindu ideology made an exception however, when abortion became necessary to save the life of the mother. The Susruta Samhita, another Hindu medical text, describes a procedure to induce birth during complications in the pregnancy. The ultimate objective is, of course, saving the mother and the baby. However, in the event that this is not a possibility, the text affirms, saving the mother takes precedence, and an abortion is justified.
This serves as evidence against the possible assertion that the real basis for an anti-abortion attitude in Hindu society stems solely from social goals related to supplying sons for the family and the caste. If that were true, and the moral sentiment played no role, then surely the mother would be considered less important than the child. Such a charge, furthermore, could be another example of the mistake of superimposing categories that are relevant within the context of one culture, onto an issue in another culture, where they are meaningless. The concept of Hindu dharma, the basis of ethics in Hindu society, makes no distinction between social and moral motivations. In fact, the two are inextricably enmeshed in each other. Thus, as much as it would be false to say that to bear sons is not highly valued among Hindus, it is equally false to discard the expression of moral rationale against abortion as artificial. Besides the fact that all the Sanskrit words for abortion have highly negative connotations related to killing, such as hatya, the way in which abortion is dealt with in relation to the rigors of the caste system strongly suggest a primacy of moral over social concerns.
As I have noted above, the two crimes for which a woman could lose her caste were sex with a lower caste male, and abortion. In cases where there had been a sexual relationship between a higher caste female and a lower caste male that resulted in offspring, it posed a complicated problem for the Hindu society. Such children could not be accepted into any caste and therefore constituted various categories of "outcastes", classless populations with no position in society that ushered in all the myriad social problems associated with such situations. Outcastes had everything going against them, and were generally destined for a miserable life. Despite this fact, abortion was never allowed as an acceptable solution. The lives of these fetuses, with all the social consequences that were involved in their births, were believed to have a moral status that protected them from early termination.
Hopefully, this paper has scratched the surface of Hindu thought relating to abortion enough to make it clear that in India (despite not being nearly as public as it is in the west) it is an issue unique to Hindu ethical thought. It does not involve the ultimate value of the embodiment of the soul, as expressed by traditional western religious viewpoints. Nor can it be reduced to a utilitarian equation aimed at the benefit of society as a whole or a particular class, as the various western liberal and secular interpretations would have it. It is a question, which, for Hindus, may be dealt with only on uniquely Hindu terms.
Lipner, Julius J. "On Abortion and the Moral Status of the Unborn", in Hindu Ethics, edited by Coward, Lipner, and Young. State University of New York, Albany. 1989.
Whitney, William Dwight, trns. Atharva-Veda Samhita. Harvard Oriental Series, vol. VII. Harvard University. Cambridge, MA. 1905.