Is Something Wrong in the Right-to-Life Movement?
Hridayananda dasa Goswami
The abortion debate usually centers on the search for a precise determination of when life begins. Distinguished medical researchers have argued that real and unique human life begins at the moment of conception, when the male sperm and the female ovum unite, because at that point the ovum contains the forty-six chromosomes necessary to guide human development. Those favoring abortion argue that although the complete genetic code for human life is present at conception, this code is not itself a human being but only a necessary precondition for human life.
Insisting that human life begins at conception, the anti- abortion movement seeks to shock us into the awareness that abortion means killing—killing a human being rather than an animal, a bird, an insect, or a fish. Thus although the movement calls itself “pro-life,” it is really pro- human-life. Its fudging with the terms life and human life reveals a disturbing assumption: that nonhuman life is somehow not actually life at all, or, if it is, then it is somehow not as “sacred” as human life and therefore not worth protecting.
But when we study the distinctions between human life and other life, such as that of the monkeys or cows, we find that the distinction rests almost entirely on the presence of rational intelligence in the human being. Thus if we accept that only human life is sacred, we run the risk of awarding sacred status to human beings simply because they are more intelligent than lower animals. And we also admit the principle of superior legal status for the more intelligent. * (*The Supreme Court has also stated that the reason we may kill the fetus is that it is not viable before a certain number of weeks—it cannot live outside the womb. But mature animals are certainly viable, since they efficiently maintain themselves outside the womb or egg. So why does the Supreme Court allow us to kill animals?) Once we accept the principle that a more intelligent form of life may kill a less intelligent form, we may ask why more intelligent human beings may not kill those who are less intelligent.
We may argue that animals are not able to live at our level of awareness, communication, or consciousness. On the other hand, a genius may argue that since ordinary human beings cannot live at his level of awareness, communication, or consciousness, they may be killed and even consumed to alleviate both the population explosion and the world food shortage. The retarded, the senile, the infirm, and other wards of society would be especially eligible for this fate.
These are the ghastly conclusions we are driven to when we try to condemn abortion while defending animal slaughter.
To shed some further light on the questions the abortion issue poses, let us turn toward the East for a moment, to the world’s oldest literature, the Sanskrit Vedic literature of India. In the most important of these writings, the Srimad-Bhagavatam, we find the following statement:
striyah pravishta udaram
“Under the supervision of the Supreme Lord and according to the result of his work, the living entity, the soul, is made to enter into the womb of a woman through the particle of male semen to assume a particular type of body.” (Bhag. 3.31.1)
Subsequent verses go on to say. “On the first night the sperm and ovum mix, and on the fifth night the mixture ferments into a bubble. On the tenth night it develops into a form like a plum, and after that it gradually turns into a lump of flesh. In the course of a month a head is formed, and at the end of three months the nails, fingers, toes, body hair, bones, and skin appear, as do the organ of generation and the other apertures of the body, namely the eyes, nostrils, ears, mouth, and anus.” The seers of Vedic times apparently knew with great precision how the fetus develops in the womb.
The most important point mentioned here, however, is that the soul “exists within the semen of the father” (retah-kanashrayah}. Then, “the soul within the particle of male semen is injected into the womb of the mother” (striyah pravishta udaram). This all goes on “under the supervision of God” (daiva- netrena), and the result is “the generation of a new material body” (dehopapattaye). From the Vedic viewpoint, then, life is present even before the moment of conception, what to speak of afterwards.
Today there is growing interest in the doctrine of transmigration of the soul. The concept that an eternal soul has fallen into the material world and is repeatedly taking birth according to his polluted material desires, and that eventually he must go back home, back to God, is an idea that was current and popular among some Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Pythagoras, and among early Christians, such as Origen.
How does transmigration relate to abortion? According to the quotation from Srimad-Bhagavatam, it is the law of God that the eternal soul be placed within the male semen and then injected into the womb of the mother. Thus according to the wisdom of the East, the person himself, the soul, is present even before conception, and certainly after. What evolves in the womb of the mother is the outer covering of an eternal person, and no one has the right at any stage of embryonic development to mercilessly drag the soul out of the womb into which God has placed him.
In the Bhagavad-gita, an essential Vedic text written five thousand years ago, we find a simple analogy: Just as we dress ourselves in various clothes and then discard them, we, the soul or self, similarly dress ourselves in different material bodies and then discard them. Unfortunately, that the self is nothing more than the physical and chemical body is an idea that permeates all aspects of modern society and even infects the so-called religious aspects. This spiritual blindness severely weakens anti- abortion appeals to the sacredness of all life.
In fact, however, each of us is an eternal spirit soul; we are not the material body that covers us. Every life form—whether bird, insect, fish, mammal, plant, or fetus—houses an individual, eternal soul as well as the Supreme Soul, who accompanies the individual soul as he transmigrates from body to body in his ill-fated adventures throughout the material universe. Thus every form of life is sacred and should never be whimsically destroyed.
So the only spiritually consistent foundation for the pro- life movement would be the firm belief in the sacredness of all life, a belief based on the awareness of the presence of the soul in all living beings. The pro-life movement prides itself on its moral alertness and personal sacrifice for a higher principle. But if the pro-lifers do not accept the sacred status of all life, if they are unwilling to undergo the sacrifice of investigating the actual nature of the soul, then their arguments will contain the seed of atheism, which is the undoer of all morality.
Unfortunately, it seems that the prevailing view that life is nothing but a conglomeration of chemicals moving according to rigid, impersonal laws of nature has penetrated into the ranks of the pro-life movement. For example, even such a learned and moral man as Dr. J.C. Willke states in his Handbook on Abortion:
Did you come from a fertilized ovum? No, you once were a fertilized ovum who grew and developed into the child or adult you are today. Nothing has been added to the fertilized ovum you once were except nutrition. You are now more developed, larger and more mature, but you were all there at the beginning.
But Dr. Wilike is dead wrong. We have never been ova, nor will we ever become ova in the future, nor are we the gross physical body. We are eternal spiritual souls, part and parcel of God. Unfortunately, Western civilization is totally bereft of any clear understanding of thesoul and God.
The actual issue today, of which the abortion issue is the most dramatic manifestation, is the perennial debate between materialism and spiritualism, between atheism and godliness, between the saintly life and the sinful life. A saintly person, a person aware of his constitutional position as a spiritual soul, part and parcel of God, will recognize God as the true proprietor of everything. Such a person will use everything he has, including his body and mind, in the service of the Lord. Although many women foolishly state that they are the proprietors of their own bodies and may therefore kill their own babies, the fact is that none of these women created her own body, nor can any of them protect her body when, by God’s law, she is dragged out of it at death. The body is created by material nature under the supervision of God; so how can anyone claim to own his or her body?
The concept of the body’s belonging to an individual is based on the false doctrine of humanism, the hallucination of a man-centered world. Sad to say, this humanistic idea has its very roots in the traditions of most modern religions, which teach that God’s principal activity is to provide for the happiness of human beings, to watch over us and reward or punish us. Traditional Western religion thus defines God’s identity in terms of our own life. We are the subjects, we are the doers, we are the enjoyers and sufferers, and God is merely controlling our fate.
So even our so-called religious concepts are man-centered, not God-centered. We do not see God as the supreme enjoyer of everything. We do not see the universe as existing exclusively for God’s pleasure. We do not see God as the supreme proprietor of everything. And consequently even our religious traditions do not have the power to establish a truly moral society.
The Vedic literature calls this type of religion kaitava-dharma, “cheating religion.” Undoubtedly, the goal of Christianity, Judaism, and other bona fide religions is love of God. But love implies service. One who truly loves God will accept Him as the supreme proprietor and enjoyer and not foolishly think God is meant to be our order supplier. If people have a real sense of God consciousness, they can accept sacrifice and austerity, and this will eliminate most of the problem the pro-lifers are trying to combat.
This brings us to the final point of our discussion. It is obvious that the root cause of the abortion problem is widespread promiscuity, which is the result of equally widespread ignorance of even basic spiritual principles. Unless people learn the actual purpose of human life—to revive our eternal loving relationship with God—they will continue to be obsessed with illicit sex, and it will be very difficult to stop abortion.
Modern society has completely misunderstood the great responsibility of human life. Both promiscuity, which is the result of equally widespread ignorance of even basic spiritual principles. Unless people learn the actual purpose of human life—to revive our eternal loving relationship with God—they will continue to be obsessed with illicit sex, and it will be very difficult to stop abortion.
Modern society has completely misunderstood the great responsibility of human life. Both we and the animals need food, sex, sleep, and protection, but only we human beings have the intelligence to understand God and to solve the problems of life—birth, old age, disease, and death. America’s obsession with sex, and the resultant atrocities committed to get rid of unwanted fetuses, show a great degradation in human society. We are distinguished from the animals by our expanded awareness, which allows us to be religious: we can understand God. A pig or a dog cannot understand God, although a pig or a dog may have sex, eat, drink, and be merry. A pig or a dog may even defend its own kind, but a pig or a dog cannot serve God and accept Him as the supreme enjoyer of everything. If we think that religion exists to provide God’s blessings in the form of prosperity and material happiness, then we are subtly adopting the same mentality as the atheist.
If we accept the atheistic propaganda that life evolves from matter, that life does not come from the soul, then we will find it impossible to sustain a moral society. But if we do recognize that life comes from the soul, then we must recognize that all living beings must have a soul and thus be in some way sacred. The Bhagavad-gita and other Vedic writings clearly explain these points.
How can materialistic men who have the enjoying spirit of monkeys and dogs be allowed to make laws that openly violate the universal laws of God? How can a nation prosper when men who are less than animals are allowed to sit on high-court benches and authorize young girls to murder their own children? Through the democratic process, men who are less than animals should be replaced by actual human beings who know God and respect His laws.
If the pro-life movement can become part of a broader struggle to recognize the sacredness of all life and to preserve the special status of human society, based on the spiritual mission of the human being, then undoubtedly it will attain great success.