[In this section we seek to answer frequently asked questions, at U.L.T. meetings or during private conversations and discussions with people who seek the answers in the light of Theosophy. Answers given in this section are by no means final. Only a line of thought is being offered by applying general principles of Theosophy.]
Question: What is the Theosophical view regarding abortion? Is it right to abort when the child is diagnosed at the embryo stage to have a defect which is sure to lead to lifelong suffering for both the child and parents? Again, is abortion justified in case the woman gets pregnant as a result of rape?
Answer: The esoteric principle is that "as long as we cannot give life, we cannot take life." There is no denying that there is life right from the point of conception, else how does the foetus grow? We find the current scientific view in the section "In the Light of Theosophy" (The Theosophical Movement, Vol. 69, p. 67, December 1998):
But Theosophy does not demand of anyone blind adherence. There are no "dos" and "don'ts" in Theosophy. Each must decide for oneself what should be done in a given circumstance. Nowadays, there is a tremendous advance in the field of medical science, which enables us to know, quite early, whether the foetus is defective or not. If the child is going to be born with serious defects, then the parents should decide what is the best course of action, i.e., to abort or not. In either case it is their responsibility. Even when the unborn child is aborted, it is tantamount to killing, and karmic responsibility ensues. The same principle will apply in other cases such as, (1) the child is born with a defect which will affect it throughout life and also give immense mental suffering to the parents; or (2) the child's birth is going to be fatal to the mother; or (3) Pregnancy as a result of rape.
H.P.B. answers this question in the article, "Is Foeticide a Crime?": "At no age and under no circumstance whatever is a murder justifiable!...When even successful and the mother does not die just then, it still shortens her life on earth to prolong it with dready percentage in Kamaloka." [In H.P.B's time, an artificially induced abortion was more prone to be fatal causing severe damage.] Foeticide is a crime against nature and amounts to interference with the operations of nature—with Karma.
There are other factors to be considered. All actions are estimated by the karmic law, by taking into account and especially allowing for the motive and the contingency or circumstances. These may include social fabric, culture and norms. A society, too, is responsible for and bears the consequences of an individual action.
In fictions and real life incidences rape victims are seen to terminate the pregnancy, well aware of being socially stigmatized, traumatized and isolated than being pitied. However, in some cases—extremely rare—of pregnancy resulting from rape, the victim decides to give birth to the child, defying the society. Karma is not blind and mechanical law and the motive especially is of great consequence. For instance, in case of killing a foetus to save a mother's life, the motive comes to the rescue but each act must bear its fruits on their appropriate plane.
We have to remember that the rules of behaviour or norms or even value system become increasingly severe for the individual as he advances morally and spiritually. The moral responsibility of an advanced student-seeker, who has enough discrimination and knowledge, is far greater than a lay person who lacks moral stamina and discrimination. Also a wrong social practice has to be addressed harshly, as H.P.B. did in the quotation given above, in order to arouse social conscience and to guide social reform in right direction. But while applying the Principle, each case has to be reckoned on its own merits/demerits.
W. Q. Judge points out, quoting Patanjali, that each ego brings only certain "mental deposits" (out of the accumulated karma) which can come to fruition in the environment provided. This includes the family, the ego's physical, psychic, mental and moral nature. There is a definite karmic affinity between the child and its parents. Through this connection both the parents and the child pass through certain experiences and fulfil their karmic debt towards each other. If it is denied, perhaps the egos involved will have to learn from similar experience in a future life.
Question: What has Theosophy to say about Euthanasia or "mercy-killing"? Is it not justified, in the case of a person suffering from terminal illness or in irreversible coma, since it helps put an end to his suffering?
Answer: There are two distinct aspects of what goes by the name of Euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide—active and passive. Active euthanasia involves killing by administration of some lethal drug, which is positively bad. Passive euthanasia is removal of life supports and leaving things to nature. Prolonging the life of the body by objectionable life supports is not desirable. Then again, it could be that (a) the patient himself/herself decides to end his/her life and in that the physician assists; (b) the doctor decides to end the patient's life without his/her consent.
The second case, where the patient's life is ended without his or her consent, amounts to "murder"—glorified or sophisticated murder at best—against which the human heart spontaneously revolts. Nor would such an act find sanction in the ethics of any religion. Lord Buddha says: "Kill not—for Pity's sake—and lest ye slay the meanest thing upon its upward way." Neither a physician nor the relatives of the patient have any right to decide to end the patient's life.
The situation becomes very tricky when euthanasia is carried out by the patient's consent. A little reflection shows that this amounts to "suicide." Were we to take a limited view of human life, i.e., that death of the body is the end, and the individual ceases to be, then perhaps it matters little as to how and when he decides to end his life. But there is more to man than meets the eye. The physical body is only one aspect. There is that in man which is permanent, called the "reincarnating ego," which goes from life to life gathering experiences by taking on various personalities. Death of the physical body, then, is not the end; the ego takes on a new body to gain experiences in a new personality and in a different surrounding, continuing the learning process from where it had left off in the previous life. Life is made up of learning, and the progress of the individual depends upon his ability to extract the lessons from the experiences of life. Even in a state of coma, the soul is learning the lesson, probably, of having the body and yet not being able to use it.
The point to note then is that by ending the life or rather getting rid of the physical form, the suffering patient merely succeeds in putting his soul in another state of consciousness where it has to wait till the normal completion of the life term. By doing this, the soul is deprived of its opportunity to go through the experience of coping with the illness and learning its lesson—what it is to work through an extremely sickly body. Since birth in a particular body, as also in a given family and nation and race, takes place in accordance with actions or Karma engendered in past lives, so for the patient as well as the near and dear ones, it is the karmic opportunity to learn the lesson and set a shining example. If the person tries to end his life, he is leaving the karma unexhausted, which is like leaving a debt unpaid, so that in some future life he will be placed in a similar situation by the unerring law of Karma, till the lesson is learnt. It is perhaps an opportunity for the family members also to learn something in attending to a terminally ill patient, and be willing to suffer along with him, helping him to bear his suffering. It may sound harsh, but if we take the attitude that the suffering that has come our way is the result of our own actions in some past life, then it may help lessen the agony and the bitterness. Experience shows that pain and suffering do soften the person, help build fortitude, and in certain cases, make him humble to accept help from others.
The human body must be regarded with reverence, as an instrument for the experience of the soul—an instrument that the soul obtains after a gap of some 1000 to 1500 years. H. P. Blavatsky writes in the article, "Is Suicide a Crime?"
Mr. Judge writes: "Life is better than death, for death again disappoints the Self."