Why Are 82% of American Buddhists Pro-Choice?

As Buddhists in a 21st century western context I think it’s inevitable that we address changing social attitudes and patterns of behaviour and reflect on the precepts each time we undertake the commitment they ask of us. The third precept is another example. What is sexual misconduct today?

A half-century ago in Australia male same-sex relationships were illegal but that, thankfully, has changed. Australia culture clearly played a part in the change and yet the precept has validity as the Buddha seemed concerned about adultery.

Perhaps our requirement, as in any approach we take to Buddhist principles, is to exercise our judgement. If Buddhism was a simple set of do’s and don’ts that adherents were asked to accept unquestioningly, most westerners would not bother. But we know it’s much more than that.

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I don’t know if this good/bad Buddhist stuff really does anyone much good?

This ‘feeling like a bad Buddhist’ might be worth some careful reflection? We are just human beings trying to see-clearly that which is going on inwardly and outwardly in a reality that is difficult to fathom - until we wake-up.

Lets say: I take a few pilgrimages to India to visit the holy-sites. I do some extended retreats and practice regularly. I start to accumulate merit-points and feel happy that I have clocked-up a few hours on the cushion. I may begin to see myself as a pretty-good Buddhist.

I may have read the Suttas from cover-to-cover and regularly give Dana and reverentially take-refuge and the precepts - receive blessings. Does this make me a good Buddhist?

Instead of measuring our performance as Buddhists would it not be kinder to appreciate the well-intentioned but naturally-imperfect* beings that we are?

“Do not be a bodhisattva, do not be an arahant, do not be anything at all. If you are a bodhisattva, you will suffer, if you are an arahant, you will suffer, if you are anything at all, you will suffer.” - Ajahn Chah

*동국포스트 모바일 사이트, Polishing a stone into a mirror

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I think the above posts have probably explained most of the reason for this—the socially liberal or progressive attitudes of most American Buddhists, and the lack of a decisive doctrine within Buddhism (more on this below)—but there is another factor at work here. And that is that the Dhamma is not a legalistic morality. The fact that something is wrong doesn’t mean that it should be illegal. No-one in Buddhism, to my knowledge, is arguing that spraying cockroaches should be made a crime, or that alcohol be banned, even though these things are obviously against the precepts. And I think there are good reasons for this.

State intervention can’t be justified simply on account of something that I (or my community) find morally wrong. Another necessary condition is that the intervention should actually be effective in reducing suffering. And in this regard, I think it is reasonable to be pro-choice, even if you think abortion is unethical as a matter of personal morality.

The social reality is that making abortion illegal does not reduce the number of abortions: it just makes them harder, more dangerous, and more expensive. The best way to reduce the number of abortions is not by criminalizing women’s choices, but through education, contraception, and support for women’s health and autonomy. There are consistently fewer abortions in regions where such sane policies prevail.


To briefly remark on the relevant Buddhist doctrines, a number of things need to be borne in mind. First up, knowledge of the process of conception, and in particular, being able to test whether one is pregnant, are much more advanced now than in the Buddha’s day.

The passage most often cited in this context is from MN 38 Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta, where conception is said to require three things: the mother is fertile, the parents come together, and the gandhabba (consciousness to be reborn) is present. What is usually overlooked is that, according to the suttas, this is not a Buddhist doctrine at all, but a brahmanical one. In MN 93 Assalāyana it is explicitly ascribed to a group of brahmin ascetics. There’s nothing unusual about this: plenty of stuff in the suttas is derived from the brahmins. But it does caution us to avoid over-interpreting this single passage. The purpose of the passage is not to define the first moment of life, but to show the various conditions that are required for conception.

The Vinaya defines abortion as taking life, and monastics are forbidden from recommending it. But this must also be understood in the context of Vinaya. Stealing is likewise forbidden, “even as much as a blade of grass”. The point is that monastic ethics are intended to keep monastics away from even the slightest transgression, and are not meant to provide a template for a legal compulsion.

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When fruit with seeds is offered to the Sangha there is the requirement to puncture the fruit and say: ‘Kapayan Bhante’ (I make this allowable). Monastics have a precept that stops them uprooting or killing plants, is this also related to the precept of not-killing, in the Vinaya? I was told that the ‘I make this allowable’ offering of fruit - with seeds that could produce new plants - was a concession to the Jains (is that true?). The Jains have a precept that prevents them from uprooting plants so as to avoid the destruction of life. I am seeking clarification on the definition of killing? Is the Vinaya referring to the killing of a sentient being when it talks about abortion or, is this unclear?

Yes, as I said, in worldly life we are frequently in situations in which doing the best thing we can, all things considered, involves inflicting some kind of harm, or telling a lie, or taking something that doesn’t belong to us. I think the Buddha’s perspective was that, whether or not these actions might be “justified” as the best thing we can do in the circumstances, the fact that we have to inflict that harm knowingly comes with a kammic penalty. So he recommended withdrawing from worldly life, severing our attachments and commitments to dear ones, making no acquisitions of territory or other property to protect, and living a begging life that is simple and pure.

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I don’t see the logic of how my stealing of the car keys was harmful. You seem to be saying some harm was done or some harm was intended and this makes no sense. No harm was intended and no harm resulted from the intention to ‘steal’ the keys. Do you see the contradiction in what you are saying and what actually happened? The intent to steal was a good one and the result was a good result - nobody got hurt. If there is a future result from stealing the keys I expect it to be a good one - not a thing to regret.

It sounds like your brother was angry or frustrated by the theft of the car keys, no? Anger and frustration are dukkha. Given the risks to your brother’s life and his girlfriend’s life, it seems that causing that anger and frustration was justified by the need to prevent even greater harms. But you had to cause one harm to prevent another. Those kinds of conundrums are very frequent in worldly life, less frequent in a life of ascetic wandering.

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When we talk about my kamma and vipaka we are not talking about anyone else’s belief about what happened. My kamma was good and the result was good ergo sometimes stealing is good.

I think you are squeezing the Buddha’s view of life into standard conceptions of commonsense morality. On such conceptions, our actions are always either obligatory, wrong or one among a set of equally permissible acts. If the thing we do causes some bad stuff, but even more good stuff, then it might indeed be the best thing we could have done in the circumstances. Therefore it is permissible and not wrong, and we can aptly plead “not guilty” before some imaginary tribunal of moral judgment.

Such commonsense moral understanding might have merit, but I don’t think it really captures what the Buddha taught. The Buddha didn’t think your kamma was wholly “good” if you “did the right thing”. He thought that if you deliberately caused some suffering, you produced some dark kamma, and if you deliberately caused some well-being, you produced bright kamma, and that both that dark and bright kamma would somehow linger in your life and and have corresponding effects on your own future suffering and happiness.

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I am only repeating the understanding of kamma I have imbibed through my knowledge of the EBT teachings and the teachings of the Elders as I have received them.

This is what the Elders said: kamma is intention and ‘vipaka’ is the result. A wholesome intention gives rise to a wholesome result and, vice versa.

My intention was to take something that was not freely given. This intention was motivated by kindness and compassion. It was a wholesome intention.

The result of that intention produced an instant result/vipaka in my experience. It was a wholesome and nonafflictive result in the form of relief and joy.

In the future some other vipaka may result that will also be kusala/wholesome, as a consequence of that wholesome-intention to take something that was ‘not freely given’.

The intention changed the future pattern of experience when it caused me to act in a way that was wholesome and beneficial.

My brother has his kamma and, as a consequence of that, he will experience the vipaka/result of his intentions. He is the heir to his kamma. His reaction to the situation is not my ‘resultant’ vipaka.

You have said above that the negative result of my intention/kamma is the ‘bad result’ of my brother becoming angry.

My brother becoming angry is not the result of my intention or, its consequences. It was his decision to become angry and he reacted that way as a consequence of his own assessment of the situation.

The (consequences) ‘vipaka’ of my intentions will be experienced in this life - this continuum. My brother does not experience the vipaka produced by my kamma.

My brothers unwholesome intention to get angry with me is something that belongs to him and, not to me. He will be the heir to his intention to be angry and annoyed.

I was not controlling my brothers reaction that he experienced as unpleasant. My brother was not responsible for giving rise to my response to his anger and resentment.

My response was one of relief - and compassion - for his state of mind but, there was no negative reaction in my mind as a consequence of his irritation.

Kamma and its consequences are experienced within our own life-continuum. I am not responsible for how my brother reacts to any given situation or, anyone else.

This is why two - or more - people can be exposed to the same trauma and have different reactions or responses. In fact, what might be experienced as a bad-result by one person may be perceived as a valuable lesson in the Dhamma by someone else.

The so-called negative result was a product of my brothers perception. I ‘perceived’ a good result without negative consequences.

I can imagine countless scenarios where an act of theft would be motivated by good intentions.

What about freeing slaves who had been trafficked into forced labour or the sex industry. Stealing them away from their slave masters?

I would not have the slightest hesitation in freeing young girls from captivity if they had been sold by their families - as in Thailand - to entertain international sexual predators.

There are some good people who do save children and adolescents from the sex- industry in Thailand and provide them with accommodation and training to help them find a better life.

If someone wants to say there is a mixture of light and dark kamma - intention - in stealing child sex-slaves from their slave owners then, explain how there is a dark-intention associated with it?

If a dark-intention cannot be found then where is the unwholesome result? The quality of the result must correlate with the intention - wholesome intention, wholesome result.

Other intentions may arise at some other time that have a different result. But that is about ‘that’ kamma and its consequences.

I am talking about kamma as it actually happens one intention at a time and its result - ad nauseum. I thought this process is how kamma takes place intention after intention - sequentially.

The Buddha taught that kamma is intention. Intentions arise one at a time - don’t they?

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I’m surprised it is that low.

I’m not the sutta scholar other people are, but I am not sure there is an anti-choice tenent in the suttas. Ajahn Brahm had a very pro-choice talk.

The only other place I’ve seen this issue mentioned is on a male dominated Buddhist forum, and as with the conservative Christians I have to wonder how much of it is an unconscious misogynistic bias.

Yes, of course. But in many of those cases, the act of theft would produce some combination of both painful and pleasant results, and the person committing the act of theft might be fully aware of both the painful and pleasant results the action is going to produce, and might willingly perform the action anyway. So there is both good kamma and bad kamma in the action.

“And what is kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result? There is the case where a certain person fabricates a bodily fabrication that is injurious & uninjurious… a verbal fabrication that is injurious & uninjurious… a mental fabrication that is injurious & uninjurious… He rearises in an injurious & uninjurious world where he is touched by injurious & uninjurious contacts… He experiences injurious & uninjurious feelings, pleasure mingled with pain, like those of human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms. This is called kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result.”

-AN 4.232

I think what you are asking about your hypothetical actions is whether they are “right” or “wrong”. But I don’t think the Buddha’s teaching fits easily into that kind of everyday, worldly moral thinking. The Buddha thought that the only way to cut off the the production of bad kamma altogether was to achieve a life of absolute harmlessness and renunciation. Ordinary worldly life, even among what we would think of as morally responsible people, is entangled in the necessity for all kinds of compromises and impure actions. That’s why the Buddha thought that even the better sort of worldly people were reborn is less than perfect circumstances. Their lives manufacture a mixture of good and evil, so they re-arise in circumstances that are a mixture of good and evil.

Think of the archetypal “good king.” The king has people and territory to defend. Suppose an enemy kingdom attacks on two fronts. The king has to decide whether to pull defensive troops away from a town to reinforce the defense of the main city. He knows that if he does redeploy those forces, that town will fall and many more people in that town will be killed, brutalized or enslaved. But if he does not re-deploy the forces, the main city may be overrun. No matter what he does, his actions will result in the deaths and suffering of people who wouldn’t otherwise die. He’s trapped. No matter what he does, something bad will flow from his choice, and thus he experiences kammic self-harm. And when he orders his troops to fire on the onrushing enemy, or if he shoots an arrow himself at an onrushing attacker, even if justified, that formation of the will to kill in that moment will also lead to his own suffering. tragic.

Is there any way the king could have avoided all of these situations and the inevitability of bad kammic fabrications? Well, he could have become a wandering bhikkhu, with no territory or dependents to defend, no possessions beyond a robe and a bowl, practicing to extinguish all desires for future states of being of any kind, putting down the rod, renouncing violence and harm of any kind, even if villagers beat him with a stick or yakkhas throw rocks at his head, and even ultimately ceasing to see the world in terms of what is “mine” or “not-mine”.

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I am not confused about the difference between right and wrong in terms of social conventions and wholesome and unwholesome intentions and there consequences. I am not confused when it comes to the social convention that stealing is always a bad thing and people should not do bad-things like ‘stealing’. They discovered that young children have an understanding that stealing under any circumstances is a bad thing. Then, they reach a new level in their moral reasoning and they can figure out that stealing is not always bad - if it’s for a good reason.

Yes, adult moral thinking in worldly society is definitely more “nuanced” and has learned to take account of complexity and the need for calculations and tradeoffs and compromises in the attempt to do the best overall thing we can do in challenging circumstances. It is never based on simple blanket prohibitions.

But I don’t think the Buddha was primarily interested in teaching people how to function as morally responsible adults in worldly society. He was mainly interested in teaching an ascetic path to the complete end of suffering, and that path depends on a kind of purification of the heart, renunciation of worldly ends and values, and absolute harmlessness that can’t be attained in worldly society.

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Yes I have heard your views on what the Buddha wanted to share with us.

I’ve been reading a book my sister loaned me called “Caliban and the Witch” by Silvia Federici. The author suggests that in the period of late feudalism (medieval Europe) there was a certain acceptance of infanticide among poor women. THEN:

The black death wiped out a huge percentage (about a third?) of the peasant/emerging proletariat population. As horrific as the plague was, by decreasing the supply of available workers it brought increases in wages and benefits to the average laborer, which was resented by the early-capitalists (bourgeois). This was a kind of unacceptable setback in the “primitive accumulation” of profit that was a necessary pre-condition for the emergence of a full-fledged capitalism.

One response to this population crisis was for governments to crack down harshly (e.g., public exhibitions of torture and the death penalty) on “reproductive crimes” - birth control, abortion, non-procreative sex, and as the author seems to argue, virtually any attempt by women to exercise control over their own bodies and reproductive cycles (various practices which began to be equated with witchcraft, e.g., herbal concoctions, midwifery). Federici writes that:

the female body was turned into an instrument for the reproduction of labor and the expansion of the work-force, treated as a natural breeding-machine…their wombs became public territory, controlled by men and the state, and procreation was directly placed at the service of capitalist accumulation.

The brutality with which European authorities treated women accused of witchcraft, reproductive crimes, and “promiscuity” does not, from this perspective, seem to be related to the inherent immorality of the acts themselves, as they were apparently treated with leniency in feudal society and before the population/labor crisis. Governments which were perfectly willing to sanction the kidnapping, enslavement, murder, and torture of Africans and Indigenous Americans (including children), and happy to profit off such colonial enterprises, apparently saw no contradiction in persecuting women suspected of reproductive crimes en masse on religious and moral grounds.

I don’t mean to dredge up the past, or advocate any particular position on this issue. In fact, while I personally do not like the idea of abortion, and would never participate in nor recommend it, I do think that the debate on women’s reproductive rights probably deserves to be contextualized. I would echo what others have said - that it is not necessarily as simple as “The first precept forbids it and that is the end of discussion.” That being said, I am sympathetic to voices on both (all?) sides of this very sensitive issue.

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I understand this to mean a monastic is the only being who is incapable of intentionally harming - generating dark kamma. But we know from the EBT’s that a non-monastic can also realise the final goal. And they may not live long after the attainment. Surely, it takes a lot of moral-reasoning for the ordained or lay Arahant to arrive at complete freedom. The Buddha did concern himself with teaching moral responsibility to any - and every - member of the fourfold assembly (lay or monastic). To say he was not interested in teaching moral conduct to lay students and was mostly interested in promoting monastic practice is not found as an explicit Sutta teaching. It is a delusional belief.

There is a difference between what the survey asked and your description. As I read the survey results 82% of American Buddhists are in favor of abortion being legal in all or most cases.

Overall, 57% of all Americans agree.

My guess is that the answer would be much different if it asked about abortions at 8 1/2 months. When most of us think about “most cases” we aren’t thinking about abortions the day before natural birth.


In general I recommending reading the survey report and verifying for yourself the actual text of the question asked. It’s remarkable how often news reporting of surveys put a spin on the results.

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I think Bhante Sujato’s pointing out “what should be law” and “what Buddhists actions are/should be” are different things is very apt. It still isn’t clear to me what exactly the law’s role is these days. In this country, a lot of people think the law is there to govern morality. In some places it is to protect the public. There are a lot of areas it isn’t clear it is doing either. Or it is very clear it is doing neither. The more important thing to me is what I choose to do (which is informed by the dhamma and my own imperfect discernment).

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