Abortion and Zen

There’s a tweet storm raging about abortion and I accidentally got involved.

Some science fiction writer posted what he said was an unbeatable argument that would destroy the Pro-Life crowd forever. I read it, thought it was dopey, and moved on. Then George Takei, Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu, reposted it.

I responded to Takei’s post, noting that I am pro-choice but that it was a dumb argument and easy to refute. When I did this, I didn’t notice that Takei had only just then posted it and that I was the first to comment.

Ever since then my Twitter feed has been filled with debate about it. So, I thought I’d share this with you, dear readers.

First, here’s the guy’s argument (edited for length, you can find the whole thing here):

Whenever abortion comes up, I have a question I’ve been asking for ten years. No one has EVER answered it honestly.

It’s a simple scenario with two outcomes. No one ever wants to pick one, because the correct answer destroys their argument. And there IS a correct answer, which is why the pro-life crowd hates the question.

You’re in a fertility clinic. The fire alarm goes off. As you run for the exit, you hear screaming from behind a door. You throw open the door and find a five-year-old child crying for help.

In the other corner of the room is a container labeled “1000 Viable Human Embryos.” You know you can grab one or the other, but not both before you succumb to smoke inhalation, saving no one.

Do you A) save the child, or B) save the thousand embryos? There is no “C.” “C” means you all die. In a decade of arguing with anti-abortion people about the definition of human life, I have never gotten a single straight A or B answer to this question. And I never will.

They will never answer honestly, because we all instinctively understand the right answer is “A.” A human child is worth more than a thousand embryos. Or ten thousand. Or a million. Because they are not the same, not morally, not ethically, not biologically.

They are lying to you to try and evoke an emotional response, a paternal response, using false-equivalency. No one believes life begins at conception. No one believes embryos are babies, or children. Those who claim to are trying to manipulate you so they can control women.

Don’t let them. Use this question to call them out. Reveal them for what they are. Demand they answer your question, and when they don’t, slap that big ol’ Scarlet P of the Patriarchy on them. The end.

The real world never behaves like the world of a thought experiment. In science, thought experiments are proposed. But no conclusions can be drawn until you actually do the experiment in the real world. The real world contains variables no thought experiment can ever account for. And no one is ever gonna try this one for real.

That’s the main problem.

The other is that this isn’t just a simple scenario. It’s an attack. It’s phrased in a mean-spirited, caustic way that puts anyone (except George Takei apparently) on the defensive. “Slap that big ol’ Scarlet P of the Patriarchy on them”? Come on! So, he’s trying to make his opposition mad, and thus unable to formulate a good response.

After I got sick of seeing my Twitter feed clogged with arguments about this silly story I posted a response that said that if there was a plate of deviled eggs, I’d ignore both the kid and the embryos because deviled eggs are delicious. Which is as good a response as any, if you ask me, since this scenario could never actually happen. It did the trick of shutting up most of the folks who were commenting back to me.

But does human life begin at conception? Or does it begin at 20 weeks? Or does it only begin after a baby is born?

Fuck if I know.

But there is clearly a difference between a child and a bunch of embryos. Acknowledging that difference doesn’t necessarily make you a hypocrite for opposing abortion.

It reminds me of something my first Zen teacher once said about vegetarians. Lots of people argue with vegetarians, saying that if you eat carrots or onions or potatoes, you’re killing them too. So, what’s the difference?

But if you say there’s no difference between killing a carrot and killing a cow, then there’s also no difference between killing a cow and killing a person.  And even I, a vegetarian for most of my life, would acknowledge that there is a difference between killing cows and killing people — if only because, being human, I can only look at it from the point of view of humans.

I say I’m pro-choice because I think the only person who should be legally allowed to make a decision about having an abortion is the person who’s contemplating having it, not the government or the Church or anyone else.

Yet I fully understand the anti-abortion crowd. They believe that abortion is murder. It’s very hard to know if they’re right or not.

I would speculate that an embryo becomes a human by degrees. After a certain point, you’re no longer removing tissue but killing an unborn baby. I won’t venture a guess as to when exactly it changes. But, like everything else in the world, I don’t think you can draw a clear dividing line that is applicable in every instance.

Legally, I think the only sensible thing is to let the person considering having the abortion choose. Ethically, I think it’s a very gray area. My personal belief is that there is a difference between abortion and murder. But there are similarities too.

I discovered something interesting when doing research for my book Sex Sin and Zen, which is that I did not know what the official Buddhist stance on abortion was. You might call that ignorance on my part. But can you imagine anyone being a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Muslim for over thirty years and not knowing what their faith’s official position on abortion was? The very fact that it was even possible for me to be ignorant of the matter tells you a whole lot about the Buddhist position.

There isn’t one. I’d imagine if you looked around you could find a few sects of Buddhism that are anti-abortion. Buddha himself had nothing to say on the matter. Jesus didn’t either, by the way. But some of Buddha’s early followers put abortion in the category of things that cause really bad karmic reactions.

Jizo statues with offerings.

In Japan, abortion is not a hot topic of debate among Buddhists. The common thing to do if you have an abortion is to make offerings to the bodhisattva Jizo, who is said to protect those who died before being born and guide them into their next life. There was a Jizo statue around the corner from my first apartment in Tokyo. Every so often I’d notice it was surrounded with little toys.

It’s probably because Buddhists tend to believe in reincarnation or rebirth that the issue of abortion doesn’t bother them so much. Even an aborted child, most believers in reincarnation would say, will eventually be born somewhere.

I think Christians may have a hard time with abortion because it seems to usurp the power of God. God gives each soul one chance to prove itself on Earth so He can determine its eternal fate. By having an abortion, you take away God’s ability to judge that soul.

I’m skeptical of reincarnation myself. But my suspicion is that you don’t really end anything once and for all by having an abortion. I don’t want to speculate any further than that because such speculation is worthless.

Still, I think abortion is an act of violence, the same way killing a cow or even a carrot is an act of violence. I think we have a duty to avoid being violent except when absolutely necessary.

So, while I agree that only the person having an abortion should have the legal right to determine whether it’s necessary or not, I also believe it’s a very grave and significant decision that should never be taken lightly. I doubt many people take it lightly. But perhaps some do. And that, I think, would be a big mistake.


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