Abortion – an Astika view

With the unfortunate death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland, pro-abortionist camp is in uproar that abortion must be legalized to avoid such disasters. The so-called Hindu-Right in India has mostly supported this pro-abortion call as well. In fact, most of these Hindu-Right people are the result of a combination of liberalism with anti-Islamic terrorism beliefs/some mild pro-Hindu notions. As such, most of them do not have any idea of the traditional Astika position on abortion and the others couldn’t care less (for a section of them wants to create a ‘new India’ based on scientific rationalism combined with ‘Hindu pride’ – but giving up all Hindu morals and practices).

For a change, we will take a clear look at the practice of abortion from an Astika (traditional Hindu) point of view.

Abortion is a great sin and is a forbidden act as per our dharma shastras. But abortion is not forbidden without any exception. Hindu texts rarely take an absolutist stand. When the life of the mother is in danger (due to some complication in pregnancy), abortion is recommended by Hindu texts. Thus, in a society which follows traditional Astika morals, Savita would have been offered an abortion and her life would have been saved.

Susruta Samhita (Chikitsaasthaana, 15.13) says”..raks.ennArI ca yatnanaH” – the woman has to be saved. Chikitsaasthaana, 15.15 even makes it clear that a dead fetus has to be immediately removed from the mother’s womb, as otherwise she may die painfully just as an animal dies from suffocation (“nopeks.eta…pas’um yathA”). Thus, a woman in the situation of Savita would have been saved as per ancient Astika customs – the child would have been sacrificed to save the mother. But in other cases, the texts are clear that the child should not be harmed for any other reason. Life is precious. Saving both the child and the mother is the prime duty. But when only one of them can be saved, preference must be given to the mother’s life.

The Nastika positions may differ on this issue. Jaina dharma might go for absolute prohibition.  Non-violence of the highest form is prescribed in their tenets (e.g. they are not even supposed to kill mosquitoes). So, a Jaina mother might be expected to even give up her life in order to save her child. On the other hand, the Charvakas (predecessors of modern day hedonists) might support ‘abortion on demand’.

Many Internet Hindus run around without proper understanding. Even a famous columnist like Sandhya Jain has erred in stating that “This profound civilisational view has influenced modern India’s Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, which offers virtually on-demand abortion to adult women.” (taken from the page: http://www.ibtl.in/column/1326/abortion-a-hindu-perspective – she seems to have followed the belief of the authors of the book “The Human Drama of Abortion: Seeking a Global Consensus” Pg.88). The Indian MTPA is not based on the Astika shastras but based on modern feminist-liberal views. The distinction between the two is very clear.

Let us now look at the Hindu view about the sanctity of a fetus’ life. As early as Rg Veda, the protection of a fetus was given great importance. Rg Veda (10.184) prays to Vishnu, Tvastr., Prajapati, Sinivali (a wife of Vishnu), Sarasvati and Ashvins for fetus’ formation and safety. AV 7.46 (Saunaka) calls on Sinivali to grant progeny. AV 6.113.2 (Saunaka) also specifically brands the person who performs abortion as a great sinner (‘bhrUn.aghni’ is the term used – literally means fetus killer). Manu smr.ti (5.90) says that a woman who commits abortion is not worthy of receiving libations (udaka kriyA) upon her death. Apastamba Dharma Sutra (1-7-21-8) considers the person who commits abortion as a fallen person/outcast (patanIya). Gautama Dharma Sutra (21.9) says the same about the woman who commits abortion (bhrUn.ahani). Vas’is.t.a Dharmasutra (1.20) counts abortion (bhrUn.ahatyA) as one of the panchamahApAtaka-s (five great sins). ParAs’ara Smr.ti (4.20) states that abortion is twice as sinful as killing a brAhman.a. ParAs’ara categorically states that there is no prAyas’citta for the sin of committing abortion.  From the period of Vedic SamhitA-s to later smr.tis, Astika tradition has been clear about abortion: it is a great sin. Abortion was allowed only in extraordinary circumstances (e.g) when the life of the mother was in danger. There is no question of ‘abortion on demand’ or ‘freedom of choice’ in the ancient Hindu texts when it comes to killing a fetus.

Let us look at the moral issues of abortion:

The ‘liberals’ argue for abortion to be completely legalized. The main argument is: a woman must have the right to decide whether she wants the baby or not. The first counter point would be: she must decide it before indulging in coitus. To not use any birth control measure like condom is the fault of the persons involved, if they did not want a child. To go for abortion to get rid of that ‘unwanted child’ is murder.

The moderate liberals’ normal posture is using ‘gradualism’. Typical argument is that the fetus gradually becomes human. And in the initial months, the fetus is not fully developed to be considered as a human being. While this is good to hear, it is not a sensible position. When does the fetus become a living being then? Is there any definite time frame? Life is formed the moment an embryo comes into existence. If it is a question of a young fetus being unable to feel ‘aware’ of its surroundings, then a man in coma can also be ‘terminated’ using the same argument. Gradualism is not a logical viewpoint. Hindu texts, in general, hold that atman (soul) enters the embryo as soon as an embryo is formed as a result of fertilization.

On the other hand, Peter Singer represents what we will call as the radical liberals. Singer agrees that gradualism “is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognize that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life” (Rethinking Life and Death, pg 105). He uses the personism definition of Michael Tooley. In the end, he says that a newborn baby (not just fetus) is not self aware and hence, killing a baby cannot be considered as equal to killing an adult human. Interestingly, Singer argues for animal rights. So, according to our esteemed professor, a human infant is worth less than a non-human adult animal.

To us, these ‘liberal’ arguments are neither sensible nor logical.

In the case of ‘right to decide’, the government must then allow gender specific abortion as well. After all, a woman ‘must’ have the rights to decide the gender of the child that she wants. To say that abortion is a matter of right but sex selective abortion is not – this is not a logically sound position. As for Singer’s interpretations, to forcefully stop a person/soul from living his/her life is murder. As a society, as a social species, every infant is a part of the future of our species. Our genes are made immortal by procreation. To consider this blessing of the Gods (or nature, if one wants to avoid identifying oneself as a ‘believer’) as a mere burden, which can be killed as per the whims and fancies of some hedonistic humans, is a great sin. It is moral depravity.

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