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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog

We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.

Siddhattha GotamaWhen considering the thorny dilemmas behind this blog's general topic -- "the beginning of human life" -- our tendency as Westerners, specifically Americans, is to think of them in the context of religion (specifically Christianity) vs. science. But there are other way of thinking about the issues, viewpoints not quite so irreconcilable.

The oldest surviving Buddhist school, according to Wikipedia, is the Theravada school. Within this form of Buddhist teaching and practice, the term bhante is used as a polite form of address for a Buddhist monk (something like "Father" for a Catholic priest, perhaps). In New South Wales, Australia, is a Buddhist monastery known as the Santi Forest Monastery, and one of the monks there -- Bhante Sujato -- has attempted a statement of how Buddhists might think of abortion in specific, and of the beginning of human life in general. He begins:
The sanctity of life is the core of our moral consciousness. But 'life' has fuzzy edges. It is no easy matter to define precisely where life, in the moral rather than biological sense, begins and ends. For Buddhism this fuzziness is normal, for we are accustomed to view the world in terms of interrelated processes rather than independent entities. Yet our need for clarity in deciding delicate moral questions is no less. In this essay I will analyze some strands of the debate on the inception of life and the ethics of abortion. I will suggest that a Buddhist approach provides us with useful tools that can steer away from moral extremism and focus on a compassionate response to the real issues.
Bhante Sujato leads the reader through six sections in considering the question:
  • The Eternal Soul and the Sanctity of Life
  • The Emergence of Consciousness
  • Avoiding the Extremes
  • Why Believe in Rebirth?
  • The Social Dimension
  • Living Wisdom, Choosing Compassion
As is often the case when trying to reconcile divergent philosophies, what he comes up with will satisfy neither extreme. For starters, he uses two terms to describe these two extremes which will make their adherents bristle, for quite different reasons. What might typically be called the "right to life" extreme, he calls "eternalists": "The word 'eternalism' refers to the belief that the self exists eternally." Note that this is a specifically Buddhist term; it is not meant pejoratively, or in anything like a scoffing sense. The "right to choose" extreme he calls "annihilationism," potentially even more inflammatory. But again, he means it more objectively: "The word 'annihilationism' refers to the belief that the self will perish, usually at death."

Here's his concluding paragraph:
in this essay I have attempted to sketch an outline of a Buddhist approach to abortion. I examined some of the prevailing arguments and concluded that the polarization of positions into 'Life' and 'Choice' can be traced back to incompatible philosophical paradigms, such as the eternalist viewpoint of the Christians and the annihilationism of the scientific materialists. Buddhism offers a middle way that treasures the sanctity of the life in the mother’s womb from the time of conception, yet recognizes a gradual growth in the moral gravity of the act of killing. On the practical side, we must employ the twin virtues of compassion and wisdom, providing care and support for mothers and children, and ensuring the parents are provided with the information and advice they need to make a mature decision. I would like to finish with a verse from the Mangala Sutta.

Service to mother and father
Cherishing of spouse and child
Ways of work without conflict
This is the highest blessing
I highly recommend reading the entire piece. Before you do so, though... please leave your preconceptions at the doorstep! Remember that the point of view espoused here is expressly not a classic Western point of view.

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