Friday, September 12, 2008

Can Buddhist phenomenology effectively sort the abortion issue?

James Ure of The Buddhist Blog has written about his personal views concerning abortion with the caveat that he is not representing any particular Buddhist tradition, school, or sect. Instead he wishes to use his understanding of Buddhism to discuss and justify his positions on the issue. You are encouraged to go and read his thoughts along these lines because he has put quite a bit of effort into it, yet you will not find a set of point by point counterarguments here. While I do reference his writing, it is not to try to contradict him or critique every single thing he says point by point. Instead his post raises the question about the ultimate utility of such an approach. What does it really offer and what can we do with it?

For starters, James acknowledges that those opposed to abortion point to Buddhist writings condemning the act. He politely points out that some texts which are attributed to the Buddha may in fact have been written by other monks, so he wishes to apply the Buddha's more widely accepted principles (including a model of skeptical inquiry based on the Kalama Sutra). James seems confident that the advice to the Kalama people was a historical event and that it is a sensible model. At this point you might wonder how much of the Buddha's teachings were recorded in his own lifetime. The answer is - none. They were written down during a council of his disciples and students that met after his death. Other teachings, often in sutra form, have been produced hundreds of years after the death of Siddhartha Gautama. For the sake of legitimacy, these were frequently authenticated as oral teachings which had been previously untranscribed. Others attribute them to the development of the understanding of the Buddha's teachings by later Buddhist communities. Neither of these explanations automatically make what is said in these sutras right or wrong. This in turn means that even if the Buddhist writings opposing abortion are not the original words of the Buddha, they may still be consistent with the spirit of his message (as some would say these authors may have been touching the Buddha's "Dharma Body"). James does not provide the details of these writings or there arguments, so we are unable to assess them ourselves.

Next, James candidly points out that he "follow[s] the sutras in many cases, I also use my meditations, scholarly works, mind-set, values instilled by my family, pondering and personal reasoning to come to that direct knowledge of what I believe to be 'truth.' " There is nothing here to criticize, but it is important to note that everything after "meditations" is a product of societal and personal history and the corresponding cultural values attached to such influences. One must be cautious in this regard because it tends to lead even the most fair-minded person, often subconsciously, to a biased selection of evidence in addition to coloring the interpretation of said evidence. Often we have some gut reaction about what we want to believe and then find logical reasons and evidence to construct a justification for that position. It also means someone in good faith could go through the total available evidence and use the same tools as James does to come to a different conclusion about the moral and ethical implications of abortion.

For example, James focuses on the debate of how he thinks Buddhism defines life. To clarify, it is presumed he means sentient life. I make this clarification because many living things do not possess all of the features he mentions. It should also be clarified that the question of when life begins, which generally follows the question of what "counts" as life in the abortion debate, is also inaccurate. According to the best current estimates of paleontologists, life on Earth began roughly 3.5 billion years ago, and every living thing on the planet is a part of that same unbroken chain of reproduction. All the life on Earth now is simply a continuation of the life that came into existence then. What people really mean is "When does an immature individual human organism become a person?" A person is a (typically biological) individual whom society formally recognizes with the granting of rights. Normally such biological individuals belong to our own species, Homo sapiens, although some folks have been fighting to get similar formal recognition and rights for non-humans primates such as chimpanzees. Getting back to abortion, the issue then is when an immature human organism should be recognized as a person.

This helps undercut some of the clutter that get into these debates. Yes, the zygote/embryo/fetus is alive. Yes it is an individual (even if you cleave the zygote they may each survive and grow up to be separate people - think identical twins). Yes it is human. Who cares if it has gill slits and a tail? That is part of the normal human life cycle. Until your late teens/early twenties you had unfused epiphyses at the ends of your long bones, but that developmental detail didn't make you less than human. These facts are not in dispute on whichever side of the debate you may personally land. In acknowledging this we can get back to the central question - when and how does an living human organism get to be recognized as a person? This issue of personhood underlies many of the major abortion debates as those familiar with the arguments will know. But it also drives us to a more scrupulous assessment of when and how personhood is granted, because as you and I and a human embryo growing in the womb are all living human organisms. If we are going to set standards for who has rights and who does not we must be careful we don't hang ourselves by our own arguments.

This brings us back to the assessment James makes using the notion of Skandas, or the aggregates to which a living sentient being can be reduced. These traditionally include form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. For example James points out that at certain stages embryos lack the form (biological structures) necessary for the five traditional senses, including physical pain. At different stages an embryo or fetus may not yet have the capacity for perception or mental formations (basic thoughts and feelings), let alone full consciousness. So he arranges his schedule of when he believes abortions should be permitted or not according to how well the immature organism places on a Skanda scale. Thus he writes:
In conclusion, I have submitted in this essay that an embryo (which is the potential human being) during the first trimester does not meet the requirements of all five skandha/aggregates and is therefore persmissable to believe in first trimester abortion as a Buddhist. I do not, however, agree with late term abortions except if the life of the mother is in jeopardy.

So I am for abortion during the first trimester and only for abortion in the second trimester in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk.

Again, the point here isn't to discredit James' opinion, so we instead can ask - "Are there other situations in which a human organism other than a zygote/embryo/fetus may not be deserving of personhood by such criteria?" If there are, then while his effort gets us closer to an answer, James' position is not complete. For example, some humans are born without one or more (fully) functioning sense organs. Others may acquire such a lack of perception later in life due to illness or injury. Similarly, some may lack the cognitive development and corresponding capacity to process certain perceptual information, or to develop and contemplate sophisticated mental formations. Others may slip into a coma which may include a lack of consciousness. What about them? And is a human organism in a coma not a person if they have healthy neural tissue and a chance to wake up? What about someone in a persistent vegetative state?

This line of thought can then permute in many directions and lead to debates over whether the potential to develop is relevant, the effect of giving something a name, whether or not other criteria can (and should) be used to distinguish human organisms that are still in the womb from those which are not, including the degree of dependence of an individual on some external life support such the mother's body (and whether this is comparable to other supports such as iron lung). These arguments are outside of the scope of the present phenomenological analysis, but they are not necessarily outside of the realm of Buddhist metaphysics. Perhaps they point to fruitful areas of analysis for future contemplation. But they also hint at other more practical questions - is a solid argument for or against abortion based on Buddhism even possible and if one existed, would it really influence those Buddhists who are committed to or opposed to abortion rights?

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