Why Are 82% of American Buddhists Pro-Choice?

According to a recent Pew Study, 82% of American Buddhists are in favor of abortion being legal. I stumbled upon this survey while reading an article entitled, “Why Are Jews So Pro-Choice?,” which speculates why 83% of American Jews are pro-choice, citing mostly Jewish law as the basis for the high percentage.

As someone who has always felt sort of like a bad Buddhist for being pro-choice, the 82 number surprises me. The first-precept is obviously pretty clear with regards to taking life, and I’m not sure if (like in Judaism) there is a religious justification for abortion itself.

This makes me wonder to what extent American culture plays a role in this survey, as American Buddhists tend to be fairly socially and politically liberal.

Regardless, this study makes me fairly hopeful, as it in some sense demonstrates the determination that choice should be left up to the individual and should not be determined solely by religious tenets.


i do not think buddhists believe life begins at egg fertilization, unlike catholics.


I imagine this plays an important part. From my limited experience practicing Buddhism I have detected that many Americans of European ancestry who adopt Buddhist practice as an adult do so after having formulated what in the U.S. are typically referred to as liberal political positions, particularly as they pertain to so-called social issues (as opposed to economic issues).

On the other hand, Buddhists of Asian ancestry in the United States, particularly first-generation immigrants, likely hold more, shall we say, “traditional” or “conservative” positions on social issues. The same might be true (just speculating) with regards to American-born Muslims of African ancestry who have converted to Islam from Christianity, and American Muslims of Middle Eastern, North African, Sub-Saharan African (not counting Americans whose ancestors were here before the middle of the nineteenth century), or Southeast Asian ancestry who are more recent immigrants to the country.

It is notable that some of the religions in the Pew poll are broken down into sects while others are not. For example, Baptists were divided into three groups (National Baptist Convention, American Baptist Churches USA, and Southern Baptist Convention) while other religions were polled as one group. For example, Jewish Americans were polled as a single group, although on “social” issues such as abortion there can be wide-ranging disagreements among different Jewish traditions such as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. I suspect the same may be true with regards to other religions in the poll such as Orthodox Christian which is not broken down into the various regional churches of the Orthodox communion such as Russian and Greek Orthodox. If all the Protestant groups had been lumped together the poll would have yielded results with fewer finer distinctions.

Back to American Buddhists, generational issues likely also are at play. I would hazard a guess that Buddhists of Asian ancestry who immigrated to the United States likely hold more socially conservative positions than their offspring, particularly among recent immigrants. I don’t know this for certain, but it would not surprise me given what I know about the political positions of various demographic groups in the United States.


This is just a guess, and perhaps a somewhat pessimistic one, but I bet if you polled those “American Buddhists”, a staggering number may not even know about the precepts, or what the Buddha taught about killing or abortion. That said I bet a decent number of Asian immigrant Buddhists make up that 18%.

I was amused last week when my wife went to training for mindfulness based/Buddhist psychotherapists and reported that free alcohol was served at the dinner break. :open_mouth:


Why don’t you make a survey here in SC?

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I believe a high percentage of “American Buddhists” follow, or are strongly influenced by, Japanese Zen, which has quite a different take on the precepts (including drinking alcohol).


How do you reason about the first precept and a pro-choice vs. pro-life position?

I feel like even though I personally wouldn’t kill any living being, and I would encourage others not to kill, that doesn’t immediately translate into a clear position on a complex issue like abortion.


Here are a couple of links where aspects of this has been discussed. Also there is an Ajahn Brahm teaching where the buddhist attitude to abortion is discussed.


I read this small booklet once that I picked up at the BSWA library. It was about a discussion that the Dalai Lama had had with some senior Tibetan Lama’s. They were discussing when the foetus becomes a conscious being. They decided that none of them new for sure at what point it happened. This is quite revealing as many Tibetans believe their High-Lama’s are the embodiments of omniscient Buddha’s. The Dalai Lama has no hesitation in saying he doesn’t know things if something comes up that he has no direct understanding of. The fundamentalist so-called Christians in the U.S.A. are often aggressively anti-choice and probably believe Buddhists go to the same place that pro-choice people go to when they die. Maybe having intolerant people - who believe in lots of nonsense in the American culture - might have an influence on how someone felt about allowing people to make their own decisions about abortion. It’s Ok if someone does not think abortion is the right choice to make as long as they don’t delude themselves into believing they have the right to impose their beliefs on others.



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Did they get roaring drunk and dance on the table? I am not sure if all Buddhists never drink at all. Some may have an occasional glass of wine but stop after that. That involves some degree of mindfulness doesn’t it? Maybe we should be more concerned with our own mindfulness training - just a thought.


I guess we need to reflect on the difference between sentient life and ‘life’. We take the life of living plants as a basic requirement. I don’t feel troubled when I eat bean-sprouts or munch on a carrot.

We would have to determine whether a life is sentient or not to determine if the precept has been broken when the growing developing process is stopped.

To do that we would need to have a means to detect the presence of consciousness in a developing foetus.

The Buddha taught that we need the sense-doors for consciousness to arise. Senses need a level of integration in a developing foetus before they can perform there function.

There is the potential for sentient existence as a human being in the early stage of life in the womb but when the magic happens is unclear.

Modern American Buddhists ‘may’ be aware of the process of prenatal development and this may feed into their perceptions of abortion?

Of course, the welfare of the pregnant person is also of great importance regardless of religious beliefs about sentient existence.

Precepts are rules of training they are not absolute commandments enforced by a jealous god.

As Buddhists, when we break precepts, we acknowledge what has happened, we forgive ourselves unconditionally and, we do our best to learn the lessons that life provides.

We understand that our journey involves falling over and picking ourselves up again and again - as many times as it takes to free the :heartbeat:

This is natural - it’s how we wake-up through open-ended patience, awareness and loving kindness towards ourselves and others no matter how many mistakes are made. We’re only human - as far as I can tell?

In most cases, an unwanted pregnancy is an unfortunate mistake. It can happen by accident and worse of all through sexual violence.

Buddhism is not like instant coffee! There is no harm in trying - is there? If we expect instant success we are living in a dream world.

We should understand and care about the sorrows of others and support them as we make the journey together - its not easy is it?

It’s probably not a good idea that we should judge each other harshly or have hatred or ill-will for any being in any state.

Sometimes we benefit from the company of others and at other times nobody wins when time and space is needed.


Although there is always a certain amount of energy in parts of Buddhist culture to turn Buddhism into yet another totalitarian religion, in the western style, filled with a lot of “thou shalt nots” and a cosmic legal system of terrifying post-mortem punishments for violations of the code, the Buddhist precepts are actually training rules, not a cosmic legal code.

There are kammic consequences in this very life of forming the will-to-kill in one’s mind, as well as other forms of aggressive and harmful volition. So from that point of view, the crucial thing is whether one thinks that abortion is an act of killing. If so, one is likely to experience bad kamma from the act. However, one might be in a situation in which one is likely to experience some bad kammic residue no matter what, because all the options involve some negative and harmful volitional formations.


I can imagine scenarios where killing may be done out of compassion. If I was in unspeakable pain I may seek to kill myself out of kindness. To me, this would be a kusala-intention not an akusala one.

I understood what you said in the beginning but I don’t know what you mean by the following:

I really don’t see why this is necessarily so?

It isn’t necessarily so, but it might be so in some circumstances. You might be in a circumstance in which, no matter what you do, your action will cause harm to some people. And you might be fully aware of that fact. If so, then no matter what volition you form and act on, it will be a volition to bring about some state of affairs that includes harm. And even if you think it is the best thing you could have done, all things considered, you will know that some being’s suffering flowed from your own action. And you will feel bad about that.

I get it - I think they call that ‘the lesser of two evils’. The less unpleasant of two undesirable possibilities. I don’t see how abortion would have to be framed in this way or, euthanasia for that matter.

It doesn’t have to be framed in that way. But framing it that way might be applicable to some people in some circumstances.

Suppose you are a person who believes that the fetus you carry is alive and sentient, and will feel some pain or momentary terror if it is aborted. Suppose you became pregnant due to a momentary lapse in self-control with a sexual partner who is not your life partner. If you choose to quietly have the abortion, and then never to mention that fact to your life partner, you will experience some kammic suffering from your action. If you choose to tell your partner, and keep the child, then no matter how things work out, it is a safe bet that you and your partner are going to experience some suffering. There is no way out, in this case, from causing suffering.

My teacher told me that every mistake I will ever make is pre-forgiven. This is how we should hold ourselves in our own awakening hearts and minds.

I understand how situations arise and, how people feel about them. I am no stranger to chaos!

What I don’t see clearly is why any of this suffering needs to be generated by anyone at all.

We can find ourselves in difficult situations but we don’t have to beat ourselves over the head about it and, nobody has to make things more difficult by reacting in a way that lacks compassion.

The more difficult the situation the more understanding and forgiveness is required. Acknowledge, forgive, learn. Recognition, no blame, change - this is what my Buddhist teachers have taught me.

We can forgive ourselves unconditionally and we don’t need to generate suffering in difficult situations. I know its not easy but this is how I see it. Pain, pleasure and, neutral feelings are unavoidable - even for a being like the Buddha.

As to whether we make the situation troubling and we become disturbed, that is something else again. I don’t see how that value-adds in any meaningful way. It does not change the ‘actual’ situation at hand and, it does not change something that has already come and gone.

We come out of dukkha by holding things lightly, gently, with kindness and, with presence of mind. We require a heart-felt interest in finding out what is going on with us that makes us suffer.

Sometimes, when we struggle to be free of things they are kept alive beyond their natural ‘used by’ date and they follow us and intrude on our sense of wellbeing - like ghosts in the night.

We need to give up fighting ghosts and embracing apparitions. Direct seeing/feeling is the catalyst that remedies our faulty perceptions and ideas - the misunderstandings, problems and torments they give rise to.

Clinging tenaciously to dualisms of light versus darkness is not a waking up to anything that is truly liberating - it does not free the heart from dukkha.


Well, I think the Buddha’s perspective was that certain intentions are inherently painful, in the first instance, to the person forming that intention, and that when we build a mind out of such unwholesome intentions, we are building a future of kammic suffering. If you act with hatred in a given moment, that hatred is a seed that comes to fruition in your own future suffering. If you experience even for a short time a will-to-kill, or a will-to-deceive or a will-to-take, then those unwholesome seeds will be dukkha in the moment they are experienced, and also yield further dukkha as kammic fruit sometime in the future.

Although I think it is certainly true the Buddha encouraged a general practice of forgiveness, presumably toward oneself as well, this forgiving attitude might not necessarily prevent the kammic seeds from bearing their later fruit. It can only prevent the proliferation of further deepening tangles of unwholesome follow-on mental formations. So I think the Buddha would emphasize the importance of purifying one’s mind and avoiding the bad kamma in the first place.

Those of us who are embroiled in worldly life cannot really avoid frequently falling into situations in which our options are very limited, and almost anything we do will cause some suffering somewhere. That’s why the path to nibbana requires, it would seem from the teachings, a holy life of profound renunciation and disentanglement from worldly affairs.


Ok, let’s look at this! Let’s say, a group of Nazis turn up at your door and you are hiding Jews. The Nazis ask: any Jews here? You deceitfully answer: no Jews here! Where is the unskilful intention leading to painful repercussions in that act of deception?

Likewise, with your other examples of unskilful intentions and there consequences. There are exceptions when it comes to the examples you have given. It is a simplification of complex situations that could lead to your perspective on kamma and its consequences.

Once I saw my drunken brother trying to teach his drunken girlfriend to drive. At the first opportunity I stole the keys out of the ignition so they could avoid harming themselves and others. How does that fit with your model (above)?

An intention arose: the ‘will to take’ and, if I had said to myself: I am a Buddhist, I will refrain from acting on that intention, I would have been acting negligently and irresponsibly.

My brother - the owner of the keys - was not impressed by my act of theft. I returned his property when he was no longer drunk. Clearly, the intention to take that which was not ‘freely given’ was a wholesome intention with and ’ instantly’ beneficial outcome.

The ‘theft’ caused relief and joy to arise as the safety of my dear-ones had been achieved. There was nothing painful and afflictive that came out of this act of love and concern.

I remember reading a study on the development of moral-reasoning in children. I will find the link!