An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values, and Issues

By Peter Harvey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Abortion and contraception

Hard to gain is a human rebirth. Dhammapada 182


EMBRYONIC LIFE

Before discussing abortion, it is appropriate to examine Buddhist views about the nature of life in the womb. In Buddhism's rebirth-perspective, human life is not seen as something that gradually emerges as an embryo develops.1 Consciousness is not regarded as an emergent property of this process, but is itself seen as one of the conditions for it to occur, as expressed in a passage from the Theravādin collection of Suttas:

'Were consciousness (viññān$$am$$), Ānanda, not to fall into the mother's womb, would the sentient body (nāma-rūpam$$) be constituted there?' 'It would not, Lord. ' 'Were consciousness, having fallen into the mother's womb, to turn aside from it, would the sentient body come to birth in this present state?' 'It would not, Lord. ' (D. II.62–3)

Thus the flux of consciousness from a previous being is a necessary condition for the arising and development in the womb of a body (rūpa) endowed with mental abilities which amount to sentience (nāma, literally 'name'): feeling, identification, volition, sensory stimulation and attention (S. II.3–4). The monastic code recognizes human life as starting at conception; for the minimum age for full ordination, twenty (Vin. I.78), is reckoned from then, not from leaving the womb:

When in his mother's womb, the first mind-moment has arisen, the first consciousness appeared, his birth is (to be reckoned as) from that time. I allow you, monks, to ordain one who is aged twenty from being an embryo (gabbha-vīsam$$). (Vin. I.93)

The Theravādin commentary on a similar passage at Vin. III.73 (Vin. A. 437) explains this time as 'from the first relinking mind (pat$$isandhi-cittam$$)'

____________________
1
Below, 'embryo' or 'foetus' will be used equally for the being in the womb at any stage of development, even though there is a usage in which 'zygote' means fertilized egg, 'embryo' refers to the womb-being for the first eight weeks, and 'foetus' refers to the being after eight weeks.

-311-

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