Hindu Bioethics: Abortion
Abortion is prohibited by Hindu text, but the ethics of abortion in Hindu society are complex and debatable. It is thus taboo and yet legal in India and Hindu culture. The American debate on abortion is centered on the following questions: When does life begin? When is the fetus viable? Should abortion be criminalized or subsidized? What interest does the government have in a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy? What safeguards should be put in place to avoid abuse? “The language of the debate is so passionate and polemical, and the conflicting, irreconcilable values so deeply felt, that the issue could well test the foundations of a pluralistic system designed to accommodate deep-rooted moral differences.” (1 qtd. in Crawford 1995). In this paper, the Hindu answers to these questions is explored through a review of moral philosophy, ayurveda (Hindu medicine), and the abortion debate in modern Hindu culture.
Background: Abortion Battle in the United States
The status quo in the US rests on the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade (1973). The Texas criminal abortion statute was declared unconstitutional by a district court and upheld by the Supreme Court in a 7 to 2 decision (Crawford 1995). The court cited various provisions in the constitution providing for zones of privacy protected against state intrusion: “These fundamental rights are implicit in the concept of ordered liberty and encompass activities relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing and education”(qtd. in Crawford 1995). The fourteenth amendment is “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” (qtd. in Crawford 1995).
Texas had argued that “life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy and that therefore the state has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception”(Crawford 1995). The court responded, “When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”(1995). The law has traditionally also been reluctant to recognize the unborn as “persons in the whole sense”(1995). Roe v. Wade established the following guidelines:
a. During the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the woman’s attending physician, free of state interference.
b. After the first trimester, the state may regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health.
c. After viability the state may regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother. (Crawford 1995)
The law has been modified somewhat since Roe v. Wade and various states have their own laws regarding (1). discussion of abortion alternatives to women seeking abortions, (2). unmarried and underage girls and other issues (Crawford 1995).
Although the courts have decided on the extent of state regulation of abortion, any woman considering abortion must make a personal judgment on whether or not abortion is morally justifiable. She must do this with the backdrop of the ugly abortion battle:
Emotionalism and simplification lead to implausible claims on both sides. Some take it to be an obvious fact that an abortion is just something done to a woman’s body, comparable to the removal of an appendix. Others take it to be an obvious fact that a newly fertilized egg is as much a person as any teen-ager or adult. Opponents on either side are accused of supporting either the oppression of women or murder. It is sad that the debate is like this, since the outcome will affect even larger issues than the ones now seem to be at stake. (Jonathan Glover qtd. in Crawford 1995).
This paper attempts to shed new light on the bioethical debate on abortion from the perspective of the Hindu tradition.
Hinduism: the Self
In Hinduism, the human person is a product of two principles: spirit (“atman,” “purusa”) and matter or “prakrti”(Francis 1992). The “atman” is “actionless, self-dependent, sovereign, all pervading, and omnipresent; that it has conscious control over the body and witnesses its doings”(Lipner 1989). The body or “prakrti” is made of five “mahabhutas”: wind, fire, space, water, and earth (Desai 1988). The Caraka Samhita says, “Conception occurs when intercourse takes place in due season between a man of unimpaired semen and a woman whose generative organ, (menstrual) blood and womb are unvitiated – when, in fact, in the event of intercourse thus described, the individual soul (jiva) descends into the union of semen and (menstrual) blood in the womb in keeping with the (karmically produced) psychic disposition (of the embryonic matter)” (qtd. in Lipner 1989). So, the embryo contains both “atman” and “prakrti” from the time of conception and killing it would be more than “taking out an appendix”.
There is a minor tradition in Hinduism that puts the joining of the spirit with matter closer to the time of “viability” of the fetus. The Garbha Upanishad describes this developmental view, “… in the fifth month, the back and spine form; in the sixth month, nose eyes, and ears develop. In the seventh month, is joined to the soul, and in the eighth month it is complete in every part”(qtd. in Lipner 1989). However, both traditions forbid abortion at any point in pregnancy (Lipner 1989).
More evidence that the fetus is not just a piece of flesh but a sentient being that has “conscious experience” can be found in ancient text(Lipner 1989). The fetus suffers “garbha-duhkha” (sufferings of residence) in the womb as it remembers all its previous lives and reincarnations, trapped in the cycle of “karma” and “rebirth”. The Garbha Upanishad elaborates on the painful experience:
“Alas! I am sunk in this ocean of sorrow and see no remedy. Whatever I’ve done, good or bad, for those about me—I alone must suffer the consequences, for they’ve gone on their way, suffering the fruits (of their own deeds). If ever I escape the womb I’ll study the Samkhya-Yoga which destroys evil and confers the reward of liberation. If ever I escape the womb I’ll abandon myself to Siva who destroys evil and confers the reward of liberation”(qtd. in Lipner 1989).
The fetus is aware and conscious in the womb but the trauma of birth erases all memories and “stupefies the newborn”(Lipner 1989). Evidence of the consciousness of the fetus can also be found in the Mahabharata. Arjuna’s son learns many of the secrets of the art of war in the womb when Arjuna is describing the secrets to his wife.
If the fetus has a soul then abortion also interferes with its path to salvation. Without being allowed to be born and given a chance to do good “karma,” the fetus is done a grave injustice (Lipner 1989). Abortion violates not only “karma”, but also “dharma” as it forces an “untimely death” (Lipner 1989).
The embryo is not just an extension of the motherly flesh, but is an independent soul that is reincarnated in her. She is only a vessel. In the Mahabharata, “The husband, having entered the wife, is born here as an embryo.” So, the embryo is never only a private concern of the mother alone, and abortion is not allowed on that ground.
Hindu dharma dictates that in the householder stage of life, one procreate. People have a duty to their ancestors and society to have children for the continuation of lineage and to provide productive members of society (Desai 1988). Reproduction is not a choice; it is obligatory. For this reason, the ideas of individual sovereignty and the woman’s private right to do what she likes with her life and body that motivated the Roe v. Wade ruling do not apply in Hinduism. In Hinduism, it is women’s duty to be wives and mothers; child bearers and child-rearers. The production of offspring becomes a “public duty” not simply an “individual expression of personal choice”(Lipner 1989).
The desire to procreate is so strong that, according to the sage Vyasa, “Should the girl menstruate before she marries, the father is guilty of abortion.” (Crawford 1995). A husband who does not “visit his wife on the day of her menstrual ablution becomes certainly guilty of the dreadful sin of feticide”(Parasara Samhita qtd. in Crawford 1995). The idea of family planning did not influence Hindu bioethics on the abortion issue.
Abortion is directly at odds with the Hindu principle of “Ahimsa.” Ahimsa does not allow the murder of not only any human being or embryo, but it also forbids doing any harm to even animals (Koller 1982). Although “ahimsa” is given more central attention in Buddhism, it is also important in Hinduism and was adopted by Mahatma Gandhi in his struggle for India’s independence from England (1982). Abortion is therefore considered a great sin by Hinduism.
Abortion is not a morally neutral word when translated in Sanskrit. The terms for abortion, “hatya,” and “vadha” translate to “murder” are contrasted from words for miscarriage which are neutral and translate to “dislodging” or “evacuation”(Lipner 1989). In the Atharvaveda, abortion is deemed the basest crime in a pyramid of evils (Crawford 1995). In the Satapatha Brahmana, abortion is used as a “criminal yardstick to illustrate the despicable character of ritualistic sins and their punitive consequences”(Crawford 1995). The Kausitaki Upanishad compares abortion with the murder of one’s mother or father (Lipner 1989). The Law Book of Apastamba says abortion leads to “fall from caste” for a woman (Lipner 189). According to the dharmashastras, killing of an embryo is a “mortal sin”, to be redressed by severe penances and punishments. It is one of the five “mahapatakas” or atrocious acts (Crawford 1995). Gautama equates abortion with Brahmanicide, punishable by the “deprivation of rights and privileges of a Brahmana, and a degraded status in the next world”(qtd. in Crawford 1995). The Mahabharata says that one commits abortion when he “kills an ambassador of the enemy”, “does not accede, to a willing an available woman”(stops procreation) (qtd. in Lipner 1989). It compares abortion with “slaying a Brahmin”(qtd. in Lipner 1989). Abortion is generally used as an instance of extreme transgression, the better to emphasize the seriousness of other crimes (Lipner 1989).
Abortion is dogmatically opposed by classic Hindu text as it involves killing the embryo and interferes with procreation.
Hinduism: Societal evils
Standing on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Arjun tells Krishna his fears of the consequences of a terrible war:
When the clan is destroyed, the enduring clan-rules collapse. When Rule collapses, disorder overtakes the whole clan. From the ascendancy of disorder, Krsna, the clan-women are vitiated. When the women are vitiated, then miscegenation occurs. Miscegenation results in hell for the destroyers of the clan and for the clan itself – for the ancestral fathers of such fall (from their heavens), their (post-mortem) libations and offerings having lapsed. By these crimes of the clan-destroyers – that is, bring about miscegenation – the eternal laws of the clan and of the race are abolished. Once the eternal clan-rules of the people are abolished, Krsna, one resides in hell eternal – thus have we heard” (qtd. in Lipner 1989).
“Miscegenation” means mixing of caste and is a violation of “dharma.” Arjuna uses it as an example of the worst consequences of war. Miscegenation being such a terrible thing, one might think that Hinduism would allow abortion in the case of 1. When a woman of higher caste is impregnated by an “untouchable” or 2. If a king impregnates a slave woman. Both cases cause “miscegenation” and should be prevented. However, abortion is denied in Hinduism even in this case of “miscegenation”(Lipner 1989). Of course, the caste system has been abolished by Indian law and Hindu reformers reducing the importance of these cases.
One of the worst abuses of abortion services in India has been facilitated by the ability to diagnose the sex of the fetus. Although the purpose of tests such as amniocentesis is to detect congenital deformities in the fetus, many use it for sex-selection (Francis 1992). Girls are considered a burden on the family until they are married and marriage requires a large dowry. Boys are desired by the family to ensure the continuity of the family lineage. Doctors and politicians who encourage these cultural prejudices against women say, “It is better to abort a female fetus than to subject an unwanted child to a life of suffering. People are willing to keep producing children until they get a son. Is it not better to let them have a choice so that they don’t have six daughters before they have a son? The test, in fact, is helping the population control program of the government”(qtd. in Crawford 1995). Hindu text however makes no distinction between a male or a female fetus; abortion is a heinous crime whether it is a boy or a girl.
Abortion is allowed in the “Susruta samhita” in some cases. The exceptions are when the fetus cannot be safely delivered without endangering the life of the mother or when the fetus is not viable and the chances of a normal birth are slim (Desai 1988). Hindu ethics places a greater value on maternal rights than on fetal rights. Acharya Lolimbaraj, a 17th century Ayurvedic physician, described an abortion procedure, “If the root of the herb Indrayam is kept in the vagina, menstrual discharge begins” (qtd. in Desai 1988).
Indian Law and Society
The Indian legislature legalized abortion by passing the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1971 (Crawford 1995). One of the motives behind legalized abortion was to stop illegal abortions in unsanitized and unsafe conditions in the back alleys of cities. The other stronger justification was the idea of “daya” or mercy. The court cited two scenarios where a woman should be allowed to terminate a pregnancy:
Explanation 1 –“Where any pregnancy is alleged by the pregnant woman to have been caused by rape, the anguish caused by such pregnancy shall be presumed to constitute a grave injury to the mental health of the pregnant woman.”
Explanation 2—“Where any pregnancy occurs as a result of failure of any device used by any married woman or her husband for the purpose of limiting the number of children, the anguish caused by such unwanted pregnancy may be presumed to constitute a grave injury to the mental health of the pregnant woman” (qtd. in Crawford 1995).
On the surface, Indian law seems to fly in the face of the Hindu tradition as abortion is clearly prohibited in the text. Why does the Hindu religious establishment not protest these laws? The answer is a religiously sanctioned “separation of church and state.”
Bioethics: the Indian Paradigm
In the Indian paradigm, doctors are not accused of “playing God”. The Hindu God is not vain and humans are not constrained by religion in the same way as the other great religions of the world. The Hindu religious focus is on character formation and practice of virtues. The individual is left to “act as he or she will in the world outside the community” (Clooney 1995). Modern Hindus do not apply the ancient texts of Caraka Samhita to modern bioethics, but defer to contemporary scientists, philosophers, and lawmakers. They do not rely on Hindu treasures rediscovered by westerners. Hindus are not concerned with “doing ethics – writing, analyzing, arguing” in a religious context (Clooney 1995). When asked to comment on ethical questions such as of abortion, Hindus reply with “non-answers”(Clooney 1995). The choices and practices of virtuous people are not judged ethically by religion. The religion is “studiously ignorant of the world and everything about it”(Clooney 1995). The religion is only concerned with instilling the ability to face the worldly dangers and demands and to return safely. The contemporary world is a “woeful place” for the religious person, not dramatically hostile to religion but simply governed by its own rules. It cannot be changed, and religion does not motivate any crusade to change it. The world is neither divine nor demonic (Clooney 1995). We live in the “kaliyug” era where God no longer intervenes, and not in the “satiyug” or the era of truth where god did intervene (Weiss 1995). All Hindus do not feel impelled to dedicate themselves to modernization of religious principles to ensure relevance to today’s immediate needs (Clooney 1995). Religious columns in the newspapers do not address specific issues such as abortion or euthanasia, but are more general with article titles such as: “Law of Virtue transcends time”, “The inescapable law of karma.” The effort of people to seek answer to modern questions of abortion would appear only as futile and “inevitably unsuccessful effort to include faith and world within a single schema of reasoned principles”(Clooney 1995).
Such an abandonment of religion in matters of morality (traditional realm of religion) boggles the western educated mind. However, if one understands the concept of “dharma”, it is not so ludicrous. For a Hindu, life is divided into four “asramas” or stages. The “brahmacarya,” or student stage, provides the opportunity to study the Vedas, dharma, and learn a trade or profession. The “grhastha” or householder stage is to marry, raise a family, and produce wealth and prosperity for the family and society. After the worldly duties are satisfied, man may enter “vanaprastha” or forest-dwelling stage in which he studies scriptures and tries to become unattached to the world. In the final stage of “Sannyasa”, he completely renunciates worldly objects and desires and attains “moksha”(Koller 1982). The householder (*voting public) is not terribly concerned with religion. Religion is left to the “Brahmin caste” or as a personal issue for the final stages of life. The other three castes, “Kshatriya,” “vaishya”, and “shudra” (Clooney 1995) also do not normally burden themselves with questions of religion and ethics. They defer to the “rational authority” of leaders in the fields of philosophy, medicine, politics, and religion. Hinduism recognizes three different legitimate aims in life: “artha” amassing wealth; “kama” seeking pleasure, and “dharma” adherance to religious principles (Weiss 1995). So it is not against religion to not be concerned about religion.
The Hindu position deviates from the two extreme western positions. The western religious fundamentalist views dilemmas in the light of revelation. The western secular rationalist views them as problems to be solved by the use of reason. In Hinduism the dilemma is not denied in these ways, but Hindu scripture stress the tension of “irreconcilable alternatives”(Crawford 1995). In the epic, Mahabharata, Arjuna is forced to kill his brother or break his wow to kill anyone who ever spoke ill of Gandiva. Krishna stops Arjuna arguing that, “promise-keeping or even truth-telling cannot be an unconditional obligation when it is in conflict with the avoidance of grossly unjust and criminal acts such as patricide or fratricide (Crawford 1995). It is interesting that in the Ramayana, King Dasharatha is forced to exile his son Ram because of a promise he made to his wife Kakai; Hinduism puts a very high priority on keeping your promises.
The Hindu also takes a position between Authoritarianism and Relativism (Crawford 1995). Authoritarians find in holy books, objectively valid norms of conduct and see human reason as flawed. They have little tolerance for exceptional cases(Crawford 1995). Relativists argue that value judgments and “ethical norms are reducible to matters of subjective preference” to be answered by each individual (Crawford 1995). Hinduism by contrast, gives importance to “rational authority”(Crawford 1995). Hinduism relies upon two bodies of classical text. The Vedas are obtained by divine revelation, but the Sastras and Puranas, written later, rely heavily on reason to support the positions they take (Crawford 1995).
The Hindu view of the morality of abortion is complex. The Vedas and the Puranas prohibit it, yet Hindu philosophy allows the Vedas and the Puranas to be overlooked. Ideally, abortion would not be required. Unfortunately, society suffers evils: caste system and sex-selection in the Indian case; rape, teen pregnancy, congenital deformities, overpopulation, failed birth-control etc. in the general case. Hindu law considers abortion a sin, but it also recognizes other evils and the moral dilemna that often result. Hinduism allows contradictory and irreconcilable answers to co-exist. A Hindu would argue for abortion in one case, and would argue against abortion in the same case.
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Desai, Prakash N. (1988) “Medical Ethics in India” Journal of Medicine & Philosophy 13.3: 231-255
Francis, C. M. (1992) “Ancient and Modern Medical Ethics in India” Transcultural Dimensions in Medical Ethics. Ed. Pellegrino, E. D. University Publishing Group. 175-196
Koller, John M. (1982) The Indian Way Ed. Fu, Charles Wei-hsun. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. New York
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- “The Battle over Abortion,” Time, April 6, 1981, p.20.