Abortion: A Hindu perspective
by Sandhya Jain on 20 Nov 2012 36 Comments

The medically avoidable, gut-wrenchingly painful death of Savita Halappanavar in an Irish hospital on October 28 brought thousands of Irish citizens, most of them born Catholics, to the streets in heartwarming solidarity with the family of an unknown Indian. Savita was denied an abortion though she was miscarrying, on grounds that it was illegal in the Catholic nation. She protested that she was not a Catholic and her husband pointed out that there was no chance of saving the foetus. Yet the doctors refused and did not shift her to neighbouring England; she suffered untold agony for a few days before death ended her misery.


Her tragedy shocked the world, especially Christians who bear the brunt of such unreason in many countries. The problem, which most westerners do not realise, is a compact between church and polity, which privileges church ideology over the free choice of adults and erects barriers difficult for ordinary mortals to surmount.


Savita’s case is doubly tragic because a person of one faith from another country was forcibly subjected to the religious prejudices of another faith in another country and allowed to suffer to death. This raises complex issues of religious morality, medical ethics, and international law, which call for deep introspection.


For the Vatican, which has for decades conducted Interfaith Dialogue, even as Christian scholars have penetrated non-Christian societies to understand their internal dynamics, this is the moment to show respect for the religious beliefs and practices of other world traditions. Western Christian clergy must clarify if their self-claimed mandate to convert the world to their faith includes imposing Christian law upon non-believers who fall into their custody in unforeseen circumstances.


To promote a larger understanding on the issue within and outside the country, a brief exposition of the multilayered Hindu view on abortion may be in order. Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma as it is properly called upholds certain universal values, but it is not static or captive to absolutism. The tradition maintains that dharma must be understood in a time and space (place) context, else there is danger of distortion or perversion. The Sanatana Dharma is a formal religion and a living civilisation. Like a river, it flows through the ages, constantly replenishing its waters (contents) and altering its course, while appearing changeless (giving continuity). This dynamism has enabled Hindus to adapt to change without losing their sense of religious identity.


Dharma deems human life to be the highest form of life, which is attained after innumerable cycles of birth wherein the spirit evolves through densest matter towards ever higher forms of consciousness. Human birth is a unique gift, and gives the soul the opportunity to realize the Self and merge with the Atman and attain release from the cycle of birth and rebirth (moksha).


The question arises – if human birth is so critical to self-realization, may we legitimately interfere with human birth? The answer lies in dharma’s notion of life and death, which are seen as parts of a cycle and not as linear opposites. In the Hindu worldview, human birth is not a once-only occurrence but an incessant cycle that affords the individual the chance to negate the effects of bad karma and eventually neutralize both good and bad karma. Death is not the end of the story; nor is it equated with sin and suffering. Death is a new beginning.


Conception involves divine intervention. The ancient Charak Samhita states: The combination of sperm, ovum and life-principle (embodied soul) implanted in the womb is known as embryo. It is the aggregate of the five mahabhutas (elements) being the seat of consciousness which is regarded as the sixth constituent of embryo. This imparts the unborn life with spiritual continuity.


Thus, physical and spiritual Life enters the human embryo at the moment of conception itself; there is never a pure state of matter alone. The soul enters the body along with its past karma (which determines factors like choice of parents), and this gives each embryo its unique identity. The karmic inheritance invests the unborn with moral qualities and entitles it to care and protection.


Having said this, it must be pointed out that Hindu thought rejects absolutism and can tackle a hierarchy of competing rights and values, a rare intellectual characteristic that has received less attention than it deserves.


Thus, in pregnancies where the mother risks grave injury or even death (as was the case with Savita), the Charak Samhita clearly accords greater weightage to maternal life over that of the foetus. This remains the Hindu position to this day – because the adult human being is karmically more evolved than the unborn child, has existing obligations to family and society, and has far more at stake for her spiritual destiny. Simply put, the life and health of the mother and the integrity of her family weigh more than the esoteric demands of faith, even though the unborn life does not lose its intrinsic significance. Moreover, being incomplete, it will certainly be born again.


This is the well considered position of Hindu tradition. The Susruta Samhita (another ancient treatise mainly devoted to surgery) recommends abortion in difficult cases where the foetus is irreparably damaged or defective and chances of normal delivery negligible. Susruta says that in such cases the surgeon should not wait for nature to take its course, but should intervene by performing craniotomic operations to remove the foetus.


As Irish society now grapples with the need to help pregnant girls, women with deformed babies, and victims of rape-pregnancy, the clergy and medical community would do well to take a cue from Hindu tradition. This profound civilisational view has influenced modern India’s Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, which offers virtually on-demand abortion to adult women.


Unsurprisingly, while the Vatican and Irish Church have maintained stoic silence over Savita’s death, in India, the Catholic-Christian Secular Forum has jumped into the fray, circulating gruesome pictures of aborted fetuses and vigorously proclaiming ‘abortion is murder’. Disregarding the fact that Savita was not a Catholic, CSF’s Joseph Dias insists that Savita’s death “is hardly any justification for Vatican to change its doctrine into one to suit deviants from the faith”. People who work abroad must follow the law of the land, he says, just as Indians expect foreigners to obey Indian law, as in the case of the Italian marines! A command performance, if ever there was one.


The author is Editor, www.vijayvaani.com

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