Buddhism and Human Reproduction

Buddhism, which abolishes the caste system, has no concern with the suitability of marriages. Indeed, its monastic nature has made Buddhism generally uninterested in family life and reproduction. Throughout Buddhist history, clergy were forbidden to solemnize marriages; this was seen as inappropriate involvement in worldly affairs. (Wedding ceremonies officiated by Buddhist monks are a recent innovation.) Nor does Buddhism have an elaborate ethical code for regulation of lay behavior. Throughout most of its 2,500-year history, Buddhism has been monastic; lay life was not considered conducive for progress toward enlightenment. However, the sangha, the order of monks and nuns, did try to inculcate simple moral understanding in the laity.

In the Theravada form of Buddhism, which most closely resembles early Buddhism, the laity is taught the Five Precepts, which call on the Buddhist to avoid (1) unnecessary killing, (2) taking what is not given, (3) sexual misconduct, (4) harmful speech, and (5) use of intoxicants. Although

Buddhist teachers will offer their particular interpretations of these principles, detailed rules are not given in any canonical text. Sexual misconduct, for example, is rarely defined and there is no position on contraception. Nor are there specific rules on suitability of marriage or sexual partners. The first precept might be interpreted as discouraging abortion; however, termination of pregnancy is not absolutely forbidden, though it is considered highly undesirable. Buddhism would see the ideal situation as one in which the partners are mindful of the consequences of their actions and avoid a situation in which abortion is a consideration. If carried out, abortion should use a method that minimizes any suffering. (For Buddhist analyses of the abortion issue see Taniguchi, 1987, and Redmond, 1991.) In Japan, where abortion is used as a method of family planning, Buddhist monks are involved in practices that women use to atone for abortion.

In contrast to the religious law ofJudaism, Christianity, and Islam, the Buddhist precepts are very general, expressing morality in spirit rather than letter. Nothing in the five lay precepts can be construed to oppose genetic manipulation, provided that it is not harmful. Buddhism does not try to regulate lay behavior by detailed codes of laws, but rather by teaching sati, "mindfulness" and ahimsa, "harmlessness." The ultimate value in Buddhism is not living in accordance with a code of religious laws but being aware of the effects of one's actions so as to minimize harm. In general, a Buddhist would be concerned that genetic knowledge not be used in a way that causes suffering, but would not be opposed in principle to the acquisition or application of such knowledge. Buddhism places its highest value on knowledge, which it sees as the sole vehicle for enlightenment and release from suffering. Ignorance, not sin or disobedience, is the case of a human's unhappy state. Hence, Buddhism may be seen as favoring the acquisition and use of genetic knowledge, provided that it is applied in ways that help, rather than harm, living beings. Changing the genetic code so as to eliminate a disease in the offspring would be quite acceptable so long as it was carried out skillfully, that is, not harmfully. Partner selection for genetic or ethnic reasons is not supported by Buddhism, which abolished the Hindu caste system. However, such selection would not be ethically improper if it did not cause suffering to those involved.

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