Buddhism teaches that all life is sacred. As modern science has opened ever more opportunities to extend, alter and initiate life, that central tenet continues to provide some guidance through difficult bioethical choices. Unlike most Western religions, Buddhism has no central authority figure or faith hierarchy, so Buddhists do not necessarily share identical beliefs about practices like surrogate motherhood. Nonetheless, there is some consistency among Buddhist teachers and writers, who generally hold that surrogate motherhood is wrong.
In Japanese, the word for compassion is “jihi”; this corresponds with the Sanskrit word “karuna.” It is one of the three main virtues of Buddhism, along with loving, kindness and wisdom. In order to attain enlightenment, a Buddhist strives for greater compassion by helping all living things. A Buddhist is expected to keep herself spiritually, physically and emotionally healthy, as well, to provide a basis from which to help others. Self-care is of key importance when considering to put one's physical and emotional resources at risk during pregnancy.
On the one hand, serving as a surrogate mother may seem to be an expression of compassion, because the surrogate is helping an infertile couple to become parents. Susumu Shimazono, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tokyo, explains in the magazine "Dharma World" that this perception is misleading. Surrogacy places the childbearing surrogate in a position of subservience, in which her body becomes what he says is a “tool” for another. He compares the situation to organ selling.
Another perspective on bioethics arises from the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. This belief in rebirth, along with the accompanying concept of karma, or earned ethical reward, means that everything happens within the context of life cycles that are vastly larger than a human lifespan. Furthermore, as Shoji Mori, Professor Emeritus of Tokyo University, argues, early Buddhist sutras teach that each human life begins with an element of intentionality, placing on us the burden of creating our own happiness. In a 2006 lecture, he explains that the state into which one is born results to some degree from past actions. Such a view eliminates the need for surrogate motherhood, which circumvents the workings of karma.
While Buddhist teachers may argue against surrogate motherhood, the law differs among countries with large Buddhist populations. In Japan, for instance, surrogate motherhood is illegal. In India, on the other hand, commercial surrogacy is legal, though closely regulated. Surrogacy is permitted in Thailand, though civil law regulates its practice. Buddhist belief about surrogacy, therefore, varies considerably with culture and economics, regardless of doctrinal writings.
- Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images