Theravada Buddhist Bioethics

Precepts for both monastics and laypersons provide a starting point for investigating Theravada bioethics. Although the number of precepts and issues addressed differs depending on individual religious status, there is nevertheless a core set ofvalues applied to all Theravada practitioners. Buddha's moral conduct serves as a behavioral model for those who wish to pursue nirvana.

The sangha, or monastic community, is bound by a code of moral conduct inscribed in monastic rules (vinaya) that were established to promote the rigorous mental and physical discipline required to achieve the Theravada religious goal. These detailed rules regulate monastic life and spiritual practice. The first five of the ten Theravada precepts, which apply to both monastics and laity, are:

1. abstention from causing injury to all living beings;

2. abstention from theft and cheating;

3. abstention from sexual misconduct;

4. abstention from lying and other forms of injurious speech; and

5. abstention from intoxication.

Of these five, injunctions against killing, lying, and sexual misconduct have specific relevance to Theravada bioethics. These precepts carry additional significance when coupled with other Theravada Buddhist concepts. For example, respect for life and non-injury to living beings (ahimsa) is linked to the idea ofpratitya-samutpada, the interdependence of existence and consequentially the moral responsibility of all beings.

As noted above, Theravada Buddhist traditions assert that the universe is fundamentally impermanent. Given this assumption, Theravada ethics strongly advocate comforting the terminally ill rather than trying to extend life through any means available. The value of life is not commensurate with lifespan, and death is understood as an inevitable consequence of unenlightened existence in an ephemeral world. Attempts to postpone death are unnatural acts that suggest a morbid (and ignorant) fear of death and an ego-motivated attachment to life.

Theravada principles both inform and complicate responses to contemporary bioethical dilemmas. For example, in Thailand, Theravada Buddhism is intimately connected to all aspects of life. Abortion in Thailand is prohibited by legislation that makes exception only in circumstances such as danger to the mother's life, rape, or incest. Theravada precepts against killing and doing harm to others are used to justify this legislation. Thai Buddhists apply the precepts to the unborn because a fetus is considered a human being from conception, and often cite traditional Theravada texts that oppose abortion.

However, orthodox Buddhist views sometimes clash with the realities of contemporary life in Thailand. In fact, abortions are performed in Thailand (although illegally), and Thais advocate different interpretations of Theravada ethical principles to justify or deny the morality of abortion. While some Buddhists invoke the nonharm precept, others maintain that abortion—in cases such as pregnancy due to rape or incest—can contribute to positive karmic consequence if performed with selfless intention.

On the other hand, in situations where abortions might be morally justified—at least in the United States—this is not necessarily the case in Thailand. Malee Lerdmaleewong and Caroline Francis list reasons that Thais cite for seeking illegal abortions, including economic difficulties and the lack of adequate or effective contraception. Yet, when a Thai woman learns that her fetus is developing abnormally due to Down's syndrome or some other serious disease, abortions are rarely sought (Ratanakul, 1998). In such cases, women are reluctant to seek an abortion because they believe that the fetus's disease is the result of negative karmic consequence produced by both the mother and the fetus (in a prior existence). To abort the fetus would only increase the negative effect. (Ratanakul, 1998). Fear of detrimental karmic consequence, then, is a deterrent to having an abortion.

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