Cassandra's Story
"The Karma of Abortion"

Much has been written and said on abortion. It is certainly one of the most volatile issues of current American religious and political society. However, precious little has been said by women who themselves have had abortions. I once read a column by Ellen Goodman on abortion. She compared post-abortion women to gays and lesbians years ago; we are closeted. She urged us to come out of the closet and discuss this issue from our unique perspectives. No one can duplicate or match our perspectives if they have not had an abortion. Men, particularly celibate men, often lack the depth of personal understanding, as no man in human history has ever been pregnant.

One of my earliest memories of the abortion issue was prior to the Roe vs. Wade decision. Ms. Magazine headlined WE HAVE HAD ABORTIONS and listed the names of thousands of women, famous and ordinary. This was no small feat. At the time these women confessed to what was a crime in most states. They risked condemnation, ridicule, and retribution. The public declaration appeared some twenty-five or thirty years ago and in some ways now the atmosphere is worse. Some anti-abortion groups wage terrorist acts that would do the Hezbollah or the Shining Path proud. According to The Abortion Rights Activist, there have been the following acts of abortion-related violence since 1995: six fatal shootings, nine nonfatal shootings, two stabbings, two bomb killings, twenty-two arsons, seven bombs placed, five blockades, five incidents of shots fired, three acts of vandalism, and one assault. These violent acts have taken place from coast to coast in twenty-five different states. As much as I would love to use my legal name on this story, I hide behind a pseudonym. I fear being attacked, losing my job, having my husband harassed, my pets killed, or my home vandalized. Be this as it may, my story continues.

I never thought abortion would personally affect me. I thought that once I became sexually active, I'd get on and stay on the pill. Well, the pill (or any birth control) isn't as simple as their manufacturers would have us believe. At that time I smoked. My doctor gave me stern warnings about smoking and pill use. I was advised to take a "pill vacation." My sister, a licensed mental health professional and family counselor, was very anti-pill. She felt that the pill encouraged sexual activity, and she made it no secret that she wanted me to be abstinent. As I had just ended a three year long relationship, I wasn't looking for sex and I thought I didn't need the pill.

What I didn't count on was my work-study boss. I was a nineteen year old college sophomore. He was a thirty-something alum who lied about his age. He had a supervisory university job and a successful business. He was the college theatre's technical director and I was a carpenter. Rumor was that he was gay. So, when he overtly expressed romantic interest in me, I dismissed it. When the come-ons became more blatant, I asked him point blank if he was gay. He angrily denied it, saying it was a lie based upon the stereotype that straight men weren't in the arts. I accepted his answer but I still didn't foresee a sexual or romantic relationship with him, even though I had become seriously infatuated with him.

My infatuation wasn't unfounded. He obviously paid a lot more attention to me than to any other carpenter, and this didn't escape notice from the rest of the stage crew. Although smitten, I was leery about involvement. I was reeling from a three year long relationship that had become abusive. I was still trying to erase the psychological abuse tapes of "you deserve this", "you're trash", "no other man in his right mind would want YOU". I had already been celibate for a couple of months; I wasn't in the market for sex. I certainly didn't expect sex when he asked me over one night. But evidently sex was on his mind and a sexual encounter happened. Afterwards I didn't worry. What was my chance of getting pregnant from one time, I thought?

Well, I lost at the unsafe sex crap table. He impregnated me and he infected me with cervical warts. Warts are suspected to be related to cervical cancer, miscarriage, fetal blindness, fetal brain damage, and fetal death. I was also a purging anorexic and about twenty pounds underweight. I smoked cigarettes, drank, used pills and hallucinogens occasionally and marijuana heavily. In fact, my roommate at the time remarked that during that year, she never saw me completely straight. Drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes have all been linked to lifelong fetal physical and behavioral problems, including low birth weight, heart and respiratory disorders, attention deficit disorder, and prenatal addiction.

My options were abortion or continuing the pregnancy with the goal of adoption. Continuing the pregnancy would have ended my educational opportunities as my family would have withdrawn all financial and emotional support. Even if my parents had permitted me to retain their health plan, it lacked any kind of maternity coverage. Thus I would have become dependent on the taxpayers for Medicaid and/or welfare. For myself, any choice which would require me to become dependent on the taxpayers is simply one I could never in good conscience make. I would have most likely delivered a damaged and virtually unadoptable child, who would have likely ended up in some kind of state care, whether a foster home or a state hospital for the brain damaged, retarded, or disabled.

Young women with supportive families have an advantage in a crisis such as this. I had no family support as my family was totally controlled by a Mussolini-like mentally ill mother. She had untreated and denied paranoid schizophrenia with periodic major depression. She acted violently at times. She had also gone to Catholic school and she felt that a "good" woman should allow herself to be murdered and dismembered before she would allow a man to rape her. Sex outside of duty-bound reproductive sex was a mortal sin worthy of the death penalty. She based this idea on the life of an actual Catholic saint, Maria Goretti. Maria pleaded with her attacker to murder but not rape her. He complied and for that she was sainted. My mother didn't work in scare tactics or exaggeration. She threw my sister out of the house, late at night, with little more than the clothes on her back. The reason? My sister's choice of future husband displeased my mother.

The man who impregnated me was hardly a fortress of support. He was busy trying to woo a platonic male friend of mine, a virgin, into bed. He handed me a $100 check and told me to "take care of it". He stated very clearly that his idea of responsibility ended there. To add insult to injury, a man who I had dated briefly and never had sex with, and who I had last seen 1 month before I got pregnant, heard of my pregnancy from my roommate. He "took credit" for it, which may have been at least part of the reason why my ex-lover behaved as he did.

The whole scenario paralyzed me with confusion, rage, disbelief...and very much a "why me?" feeling.

My sister had two children; at the time they were five and one. I remembered how she was when she found out she was pregnant. She began looking for names and looking at maternity clothes, and wondering who her child would look like. She told me she was pregnant before our mother knew. My sister took my mother out to lunch and told her because she knew my mother wouldn’t make a scene in public. My mother hated my sister’s husband so intensely that my sister feared our mother’s reaction, and my sister felt safer in a public place. I suspected that if my mother had known about my pregnancy, she would have ended my life violently and abruptly.

I felt no urge to pick out names, or wonder what the "child" would look like. I felt that there was a monster growing inside me, and if that monster saw the light of day, it would destroy and devour my entire existence.

At the time I was not a Buddhist. I had been formally raised an Episcopalian but my Mexican mother had retained her Roman Catholic faith and her beliefs had a definite presence in our home. Incidentally or coincidentally, she despised all non-Christian traditions. At that point in my life I was still enmeshed in Christian practice. Despite my apparently hedonistic lifestyle I was devout in my own way. I said a rosary daily, I shunned meat on Friday during Lent, and I attended church regularly. I placed a crucifix prominently in my room. I even said a regular confession, something which the local Catholic Priest called "out of style". Most people are aware of the Catholic Church's views on birth control, premarital sex, and abortion. The Episcopal Church is not far behind. So naturally my first impulse was to fall back on the old standbys of my faith at the time. I said novenas. My Catholic friends said novenas. I prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to Jesus, to Mary Magdalene, the archetypal "Fallen Woman". I promised to do anything, any kind of penance, if my period would just start.

It didn't. I had one and then two negative tests. I kept praying and beseeching. Finally the third one came back positive. The first thing I did is I told my best friend, Laurie. I remember sitting in her room, smoking and getting high and sobbing. After she was exhausted and I was incoherent, she suggested I go back to my room and go to bed. I went back to my room. I locked the door and I played the loudest, angriest Black Sabbath I had. I remember standing in that dorm room as if it were yesterday. I can see the cement block walls, the rock posters, and the roach clips hanging under the crucifix. I locked the door and I screamed to God "why are you doing this to me? I do all the things you ask of me--I say prayers to the Virgin, to Jesus and to the Holy Spirit, I give up things for Lent, I confess. I ask one simple thing from you, just once, and this is what I get?" I shook my fist in the air and screamed "if you betray me then I betray you. If you renounce me then I renounce you." I tore my rosary and my crucifix off the wall and shoved them in a drawer. Weeks later I mailed them back to my former boyfriend, the abuser, who had given them to me. At that point I had my anti-epiphany. I grew into being an atheist with an intense hatred of religion.

At that point I knew I was in an awful mess. and I had to make a bad situation less bad. Buddhists are familiar with karma--the law of cause and effect. It's almost Newtonian the way it states that for every action (good, bad, or in between), there is a consequence (good, bad, or in between). A person's misdeeds can and will come back to them or others in their midst. Buddhists are also familiar with the Four Noble Truths regarding suffering: life consists of birth, decay, sickness, and finally death. Craving, or greed, and the dissatisfaction of that craving or greed causes suffering. Suffering is stopped by the cessation of craving or greed. The method to do so is unfolded in the Noble Eightfold Path.

Buddhists can stop greed from ruining their lives--it is entirely within their power and ability to do so. This is the important corollary to cause and effect. Even when we cause suffering due to our own misdeeds there is a way to ease the situation. Right views, speech, livelihood, actions, effort, and concentration. Buddhists call this the Noble Eightfold Path. Please note that not once does "thou shalt not" appear. Buddhism commands us to do the right thing and make the right decision. It doesn't pretend to know what the right things or what the right decisions are. That is left up to the individual. As Christmas Humphreys put it in A Western Approach to Zen: "Perfection means not perfect actions in a perfect world but appropriate actions in an imperfect one." By Buddha's command we work out our OWN salvation with diligence.

This situation is an obvious example of karma. My pregnancy had nothing to do with God or betrayal but simple biology: when a fertile man and woman have sexual intercourse without contraceptives, pregnancy is very likely.

But I didn't see that at the time. By my own folly, and by the folly of my partner, I found myself in this situation and by my own diligence I found a way out. I relied on sexual relations with men for my own self-worth. I made choices of partners that any intelligent woman with a shred of self esteem would not have made. But I didn't even have a shred of self esteem. I think my boss sensed this the way a shark can smell traces of dolphin blood in seawater. My own self-destructive tendencies, pathological need for acceptance, and desire to rack up men like elk trophies in order to prove my worth caused ill karma, suffering, and an unwanted pregnancy.

But, even then, I knew better than to make a bad situation worse. It was evident that carrying the pregnancy to term would make the situation horrendous, especially for the fetus, if it were delivered. Pro-lifers love to talk about the "rights" of the fetus above every other sentient being's rights, which to them includes the "right" to be born into the most hideous of circumstances. They treat the rights of the non-human sentient as a non-issue. They dismiss the most extreme of circumstances and the most cogent of thought processes with shouts of "baby killer", arson, and the murder of doctors. To me, this represents an extreme form of the idolatry of self which is condemned from the Dhammapada down through the writings of D.T. Suzuki. When confronted with the logic of Randall Terry or Joe Scheidler, I remember what Hui Neng said: "By amending our mistakes, we get wisdom. By defending our faults, we betray an unsound mind."

Indeed, some Buddhists argue that abortion is wrong. They refer to doctrines condemning the killing of any sentient being. And I do concur that the killing of any sentient being is wrong. But, is sentience ever defined, and who defines it? Sentience comes from the Latin TO FEEL, sentire. This is different from neuromuscular feeling. It is heart or soul or psyche feeling, what Buddhists would call Buddha-nature. Christians would call this Christ-nature. Hindus would call it Brahma. A Taoist calls it the Eternal Tao.

To feel, a creature must be alive. To me, and to many doctors, ethicists, philosophers, and others, being biologically alive consists of independently maintaining all necessary life functions of the particular species: breathing/respiration, eating/consumption, elimination, heartbeat/circulation, and so on. In a human fetus this is called viability and it is achieved at about 25 weeks gestation. Much prior to that, a fetus stripped of its life support system will simply perish. Between 25 and 35 weeks, it MAY be able to survive if hooked up to the types of complex life-support systems which can keep a brain-dead person physically alive. This is not opinion but scientific and medical fact.

Thus, I find it absurd and dangerous to dwell on the rights of the non-sentient when the rights of the sentient are far more compelling. When Buddha preached in the Jetavana Grove, he advised something which is immeasurably valuable: "Do not give up your own benefit, even if by doing so you will bring great benefit to others. When you truly understand what will help you, you will naturally turn to the highest good."

It is clear that when people make mistakes, which people will inevitably do, then people should try to use the highest wisdom and compassion to determine what is Right Action. Buddha realized that overcoming negligence and mistakes is important. While speaking in the Jetavana Grove he advised:

Whoever has been negligent, but later becomes vigilant, Is like the moon, which freed up from clouds, lights up the world. Whoever has done harmful actions, but later covers them with good, is like the moon which, freed from clouds, lights up the world.

Of course, I could have continued to be negligent and act harmfully. I could have created bad karma after worse. I can't imagine a worse karma than to be born unwanted. Hitler, Nicolae Ceaucescu, Saddam Hussein, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and David Koresh were all unwanted. Manson, Bundy, and Koresh were all born to young, single women.

I don't want to discount that there are many mothers and couples who bear unwanted children and raise them to be happy, successful adults. But it is unfair and unrealistic to expect all expectant women and men of this kind of heroics. A fortysomething Murphy Brown type mother, with a well paying job and benefits, education, and good housing will likely raise a child who will be an asset and not a detriment to society. But to expect the same of a teenager with no family, no job, no insurance, and no support system is just ludicrous.

It is also unfair and totalitarian to take a single person's or group's standard of what are acceptable circumstances for having a child and imposing that on everyone. Some feel that raising a child on welfare is acceptable. I for one do not. Others find inadequate education, no job, no insurance and subsequent poverty acceptable for child raising. Many, myself among them, do not. Some feel that a child or adolescent raising a child is acceptable. I for one do not. Some people find single parenthood unacceptable. Others do not. Some birthparents' families are willing to accept, love, and raise the born child. Others feel that "dumping" the responsibility onto others is unacceptable. Some, like me, have no one in their family who could suitably raise a child even if someone accepted it. Some people have the personality and temperament to surrender a born child for adoption. Others don't.

These types of decisions are at the very core of what Right Action, Right Thought, and the authority of reason and conscience are all about. Buddhism is all about is the wayfarer finding one's own way along the path. NO ONE can and should even claim to be able to do that for us. In recent years, one person claimed to have this ability. He died in a fire in Waco, Texas.

Adoption as an alternative is often touted by the "pro-lifers" as the alternative to abortion. I know that adoption is a viable option for some birthparents and a blessing to infertile couples. Unfortunately, the only infants that are in demand in the adoption marketplace are white, healthy, and drug-free. Other infants, those of mixed race or with health problems, sit languishing by the thousands in institutional or foster care, and their lives are often bleak at best. In addition, many families of expectant birthparents are unable or unwilling to accept that "their" grandchild, niece, nephew, cousin, etc would be "given away" even though they may be unwilling or unable to provide the social and financial support necessary to the successful raising of a child. Moreover, despite some folks' "pro-life" rhetoric, pregnant women and society view adoption more unfavorably than they did years ago. There are 327,000 unwed and unplanned teenage births in the United States every year and there are only 50,000 adoptions.

Many so-called pro-lifers like to discount the real problems of either single-parenthood or adoption. They love to spout rhetoric about "abortion for convenience", saying women want to evade their "biological destiny" (I thought Freud was dead!) and they have abortions because they don't want to be pregnant over bikini season, ski season, career-climbing time, moving time, their 21st birthday, and so on. They also claim women abort for purely sex-selection reasons. While sex-selection abortion has been documented in India and Korea, for example, these "pro-lifers" have problems documenting anyone who actually HAS an abortion for any of these other reasons. Let's assume for a minute that they do. Karmically speaking, what kind of parents would they be? What moral and ethical fabric would they give their children if they had them? If someone is that bereft of ethical depth and content, than let them have the abortion and let’s hope they get a sterilization too.

As heinous as I personally find sex-selection abortion to be, let's think for a minute how these girls/women would be treated if born. The parents that would practice sex selection abortion are the same ones that would sell their daughters into prostitution or slave-marriages. These are the same folks that burn dowry-poor brides and widows alive. In that situation the problem is patriarchy not abortion. Our task should be to repudiate patriarchy as the defilement that it is and sex selection abortion will disappear on its own.

Regarding karma, there is an oft-forgotten non-human aspect which is worthy of mention. Every day, there is a worldwide net population increase of 260,000 people. Every American man, woman, and child produces over 3 pounds of garbage per person, per day. Even if a person is a lifelong strict vegetarian, every human born causes many more non-human beings to die and worsens the overall population crisis. When H.H. The Dalai Lama IV Tenzin Gyatso spoke to the Parliament of the Worlds Religions in Chicago on September. 4, 1993, he did not mention abortion but he emphasized the need for worldwide use of birth control. Thus I think it is everyone's responsibility to beget people in the best circumstances possible. The karmic consequences will affect human and non-human sentient beings alike. Regarding karma, Christmas Humphreys said:

All things...are not only inter-related but interdependent. We are members, one of another, locked in an inseparable embrace under karma.

Thus, I chose to terminate my pregnancy. To this day I feel I made the best possible decision for my situation. Everyone must weigh the karma of abortion carefully. We must look at the various options--terminating the pregnancy, surrendering the born child for adoption, and parenthood. Under each option we must look carefully at the individual facts of each situation and decide which option will cause the least harm and the most good for ALL of us. If we unleash a new person onto the planet it is our utmost responsibility that this person be a benefit and not a problem to our global community.

While I can understand why some clergy members find abortion repugnant, I feel they need to be mindful of some things: firstly, it is very easy for a celibate man or woman to be offended by abortion. Secondly, abortion is a symptom for many societal and spiritual ills which need to be addressed. If anyone truly wants to reduce or eliminate abortion then they must look at what causes it: namely, the cultural abuse and spiritual disenfranchisement of women, the neglect or destruction of women's self esteem, women's relative powerlessness in sexual relationships, sexual ignorance, insecurity, and carelessness. Clergy of all faiths need to key in on what women are feeling and experiencing. They need to bluntly and frankly promote birth control to their laity and help instill a sense of sexual responsibility in men. They, and everyone, must be aware that each woman's situation is unique and defies any simple platitudes or formulaic solutions. I am relieved that in the U.S. the law permits us to act according to our own consciences. I am also relieved that Buddhism and Zen have eschewed pelvic McCarthyism as no one can know another's karma better than herself.





2. Christmas Humphreys, A WESTERN APPROACH TO ZEN (London: George Allen & Unwin, LTD, 1971), pp. 38, 59

3. A.F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam, trans. THE SUTRA OF HUI NENG (Boston: Random House, 1990), p. 92

4. ---------------------, DHAMMAPADA (Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1985), pp. 87, 90

I was delighted to find your website! I am a poet, short fiction writer, and novelist. I have had my poetry published in several literary anthologies and am currently seeking a publisher for my first novel. I have also had an abortion. I wrote an essay about it, but I have found that many publications won't touch the subject of abortion. Abortion remains stigmatized and taboo. I am attaching my essay here. I hope you find it worthwhile.

14 April 1999

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"My heart's in the right place. I know, 'cuz I hid it there."
- Carrie Fisher