Abortion and Buddhism in Thailand: Q&A with a Female Monk

Since Buddhist teachings are against abortion and most Thais believe in Buddhism, the spread of abortion in Thailand demands an understanding of how Buddhism deals with this. Under Section 301 of the Criminal Code, abortion is illegal in Thailand except (Section 305) when the pregnancy threatens the mother’s health, which has been interpreted to include both physical and mental well-being, or when it is the result of rape, incest or other unlawful sexual contact. The Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights Foundation of Thailand (WHRRF) reports that about 300,000 people undergo abortions each year in Thailand.

Bhikkhuni Dhammananda

Some feminists claim that abortion is the right of a woman, while Buddhism teaches that abortion is a sin. Do feminism and Buddhism contradict each other on this issue? Also Thai women who have had abortions tend to believe they can be forgiven by begging indulgence at temples. But is that really true?

In an interview with Prachatai, Bhikkhuni Dhammananda explained the true teaching of Buddhism how it handles abortions, and how Thai people misunderstand Buddhist concepts.

Bhikkhuni Dhammananda (Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh), a female Buddhist monk, currently the Abbot of Songdhammakalyani Monastry, is also known as a feminist. She has worked to support women’s access to religious learning, and promoted the importance of women religious leaders. She was ordained as a Buddhist novice in Sri Lanka in 2001, and received Bhikkhuni (female monk) ordination two years later. She talked about women’s rights and religion at the beginning of the forum “Strengthening Movements for Gender Justice in ASEAN”, at Mida City Resort Bangkok, on 17 June 2013.

Prachatai: You are a female Buddhist monk and a feminist. How do you see the view of feminists who say that abortion is a woman’s right, even though having an abortion is prohibited in Buddhism?

Bhikkhuni Dhammananda: Abortion is killing, and the first precept of Buddhism is not to kill. Thus, abortion is wrong, according to Buddhist teaching. If you decide to have an abortion, you must know abortion is killing, a bad act, and that results in bad karma. But, you have the right to do so, if you are willing. Then it is your right to make a decision. However it’s your responsibility to take the results of that action. So it is very clear, there are no contradictions here.

Could you use an easier example to explain the concept, please?

OK, now let’s not talk about abortion. It’s very complicated. The second precept of Buddhism is not to steal. So, it is bad to steal. But if you choose or make a decision to steal, that is your right, and you must be responsible for your act. There is no contradiction here, you see? For example, you decide to steal, and you are willing to take the responsibility, then go ahead and steal, right? Buddhism is not the kind of religion to tell you what to do or what not to do. It’s not controlling. You have the right to do it, but have to be responsible for it. So Buddhism is very mature. Buddhism is the religion for mature people. You have to be mature to understand.

So Buddhism doesn’t have rules that people must obey?

No. It teaches like this, “if you do this, this is the result.” So feminists say that it is the right of women to have abortions, that’s fine, but they also have to take responsibility. As a Buddhist monk, I cannot tell you, “You should not do that! Don't do that!” I can tell you, “Look, if you do that, you have to have this result, this is your responsibility.” But you also have the right to make a decision to do or not to do. So I don’t see any contradictions here. One more example, I know abortion is bad. It is against the teaching. But I have to do it, because there are many other conditions that I have to take into consideration, so I may choose to have an abortion. But I always have to consider the result of the abortion too.

I understand. Now can you say that having an abortion and killing a person, a murder, are the same under Buddhist teaching?

Yes, I would say it’s the same.

You mean that they’re the same acts for which you must be responsible.

Yes. If I kill you, your friends or parents will fight back. But babies, who are killed as a result of abortions, cannot fight back. It is a question of compassion. If you don’t have compassion for your own babies, how can you have compassion for anyone else?

How do you explain the case of a raped woman? What’s going to happen if she gets pregnant?

The decision of this woman, who is raped, to have an abortion is an act for which she is taking another responsibility. But there will be the responsibility of the one who raped the woman too, since Buddhism says that a bad act always leads to a bad result. It doesn’t matter if he escaped the law, or the law cannot catch him.

Let’s narrow the issue now. Most of the women who have abortions in Thailand later go to the temple to beg for indulgence for their guilt. What do you think about that?

To have an abortion and to go to the temple are different things. So, let’s separate them. There are two separate acts here, and they are not related. You cannot delete an act by coming to the temple for indulgence. Killing is killing. You have to accept that.

According to your explanation, it seems that most Thai people misunderstand the true concept of Buddhism.

Sure. It’s a myth that people can delete bad acts by going to the temple. Bad acts lead to bad results. Karma cannot be deleted. So again, Buddhism teaches you to be a responsible person.

Could you explain more?

In Thailand, if you feel bad for your acts, then you go to the temple and make an offering. Later, you may feel less guilt than before, but the bad act must be there, I mean the result of that act is still there. You, at least, can feel better, but you can’t delete the fact. People in Thailand tend to think they can delete bad karma by going to the temple and making offerings. However, that karma, which is done, was created willingly. You are totally aware of what you have done. You had the clear intention to do what you have done. That is the result, and you can’t avoid this.

If so, are there any advantages for Thai people from going to the temple and making merit in their daily lives?

Tham bun (making merit) is to make good karma. This is another act (separate from begging indulgence). Think about it separately. To carry out a good act creates good karma, then it creates a good result. For example, to kill people is a bad act, and it creates a bad result. Now the fact that you make merit, with a very pure heart, directly results in your very happy feeling. You see now, they are completely different acts. Don’t put them (seeking indulgence and making merit) together. This is one of the misunderstandings about Buddhism among Thai people. So now, why aren’t you afraid of your own act that results in something bad? If you are truly afraid of that, then you must not carry out acts that will cause you harm.

Are there more misconceptions?

Some women ordain their sons, and they believe their sons will take them to heaven. But this is wrong. The sons who are ordained can only do good for themselves. It has nothing to do with their mothers.

That’s why you think that female ordination as monks is becoming very important in Thailand.

Yes. It’s supposed to be a good act for those women or mothers to be ordained, why not?

What do you do, or what are you going to do from now on, to solve these issues?

As a monk, providing education is the quickest way. Now I write articles in a weekly magazine, so that the public can hear my ideas. I also teach the people who visit my temple. I like this, since people can know my teaching directly, particularly Buddhist people.

What will Thailand be like 10 years from now?

What Thailand is like in the future is depends on what Thailand is like now. The future is always based on now. Whether a student can finish studying from a university or not depends on his or her current behaviour. If I see that a student doesn’t study at all, I can tell him how bad his future is going to be. But if I see that he does well, I will tell him about his good future, see? Don’t look so far, but look closely. Then, individuals will form the whole of society, the nation, and the world. So once people realize that the good acts that people do individually will accumulate, there will be a good society in the future.