Buddhism Buddhism and Abortion
Damien Keown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0198


In Buddhist countries, abortion is not the controversial issue it is in the West. There is comparatively little public debate surrounding it, and, in marked contrast to the voluminous multidisciplinary literature available in the West, little has been published on the subject from a Buddhist perspective. Accordingly, there are gaps in the scholarly coverage, and the researcher familiar with Western studies on abortion is likely to be disappointed with the limited range of material currently available. The reasons for the comparatively low level of interest are not altogether clear, and the literature itself sheds little light on this question. One reason may be the greater reticence on the part of religious leaders in Buddhist societies to comment publicly on controversial issues. Buddhism is also less prescriptive in its ethico-religious rules than the Abrahamic traditions, and Buddhist monastics would rarely be called upon for advice or guidance by the laity on matters of abortion or family planning. Monks and nuns follow their own code of monastic law (Vinaya), which enjoins celibacy and prohibits them from any involvement in the taking of life, explicitly including abortion. The first of the five precepts followed by the laity also prohibits the taking of human life, and abortion is generally regarded as falling under this prohibition and therefore is considered morally wrong. Nevertheless, and despite the existence of restrictive laws in many countries, large numbers of abortions—both legal and illegal—are performed each year by Buddhists throughout Asia.

General Overviews

The best overview of the subject can be found in Harvey 2000. The reference works included here also provide a useful place to start. The remainder of the publications listed discuss the topic from a variety of perspectives and include global surveys of abortion law and practice that help to place abortion practice in Buddhist countries in context. Hall 1970 and Simon 1998 provide global surveys of abortion law and practice, and the WHO publication Mundigo and Indriso 1999 reviews aspects of abortion in the developing world. Hughes and Keown 1995 provides an introduction to the specifically Buddhism-related literature. Harvey 2000 offers an excellent one-chapter overview, while Keown 1999 provides a collection of more-focused articles. Sasson and Law 2009 examines how the fetus is depicted in Buddhism and other religions. McDermott 1999 and Taniguchi 1987 provide useful supplementary information on the early Buddhist position.

  • Hall, Robert E., ed. Abortion in a Changing World. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

    Proceedings of an international conference convened in Hot Springs, Virginia, 17–20 November 1968, by the Association for the Study of Abortion. Includes a global survey of abortion practices, including Asian countries with large Buddhist populations.

  • Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511800801

    Chapter 8, “Abortion and Contraception,” provides an excellent introduction to all relevant aspects of the issue from a Buddhist perspective. Includes a useful discussion on the relationship between morality and law, a topic not covered elsewhere.

  • Hughes, James J., and Damien Keown. “Buddhism and Medical Ethics: A Bibliographic Introduction.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 2 (1995): 105–124.

    Although now somewhat dated, this article provides an introduction to the literature addressing issues in medical ethics from a Buddhist perspective. The first part of the article discusses Buddhism and medicine and outlines some of the main issues in modern medical ethics. In the rest of the paper, three subjects are considered: (1) moral personhood, (2) abortion, and (3) death, dying, and euthanasia.

  • Keown, Damien, ed. Buddhism and Abortion. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999.

    The only book specifically devoted to Buddhism and abortion. This edited collection contains ten chapters discussing abortion from a range of perspectives and with reference to specific Asian countries. The chapters are discussed individually in the relevant sections of this bibliography. First published in 1998 (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan).

  • McDermott, James P. “Abortion in the Pāli Canon and Early Buddhist Thought.” In Buddhism and Abortion. Edited by Damien Keown, 157–182. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999.

    Provides a good introduction to the orthodox Theravāda position on abortion in early Buddhism, as documented both in popular and canonical sources. Volume first published in 1998 (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan).

  • Mundigo, Axel I., and Cynthia Indriso, eds. Abortion in the Developing World. World Health Organization Report. London and New York: Zed Books, 1999.

    This World Health Organization publication contains twenty-five chapters reviewing different aspects of abortion in countries in the developing world, including China, Korea, and Sri Lanka.

  • Sasson, Vanessa R., and Jane Marie Law, eds. Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    A collection of essays exploring how the fetus is depicted in the world’s major religions and showing how the fetus emerges as a powerful symbol and metaphor representing human needs and emotions. Contains four essays on Buddhism, which are cited separately (Sasson 2009, cited under Pali Buddhism; Kritzer 2009, cited under Sanskrit Buddhism; McDaniel 2009, cited under Thailand; and Garrett 2009, cited under Tibet).

  • Simon, Rita J. Abortion: Statutes, Policies, and Public Attitudes the World Over. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998.

    Provides information on the current legal status of abortion in selected countries worldwide, including reference to public opinion as reflected in opinion polls and the relation between policies on abortion and population management.

  • Taniguchi, Shoyo. “A Study of Biomedical Ethics from a Buddhist Perspective.” MA diss., Graduate Theological Union/Institute of Buddhist Studies, 1987.

    Master’s thesis sketching out a Buddhist approach to bioethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Adopts a conservative interpretation of traditional teachings that excludes incest and rape as valid grounds for abortion (p. 78). A summary of the views expressed can be found in Taniguchi’s article “Biomedical Ethics from a Buddhist Perspective,” Pacific World Journal, n.s., 3 (Fall 1987): 75–83.

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