Exploring the Baha’i Teachings on Abortion

Throughout the world, in countries large and small, abortion has long been a contentious and polarizing issue. Lately, that issue has risen to the foreground again, challenging us all to consider what we believe.

For some people, abortion is murder, because it terminates the life of a fetus that can potentially become a viable human being. 

For others – especially in cases where modern medicine has determined that carrying a fetus to term would imperil the life of the mother, or when the fetus shows evidence of serious birth defects, or when the mother was impregnated as a result of rape or incest – aborting the fetus is considered a regrettable necessity. 

For still others, abortion is solely a personal decision between a woman and her physician, never to be regulated by governmental laws or dictates.

Let’s examine the Baha’i teachings on the subject, which strikingly reflect elements of all three of these seemingly irreconcilable, divergent points of view.

RELATED: Eggs, Zygotes, and Embryos: When Does Life, and the Soul, Begin?

First, in his Most Holy Book, Baha’u’llah – the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faithoutlawed the killing of other human beings:

… let no soul slay another; this, verily, is that which was forbidden you … What! Would ye kill him whom God hath quickened, whom He hath endowed with spirit through a breath from Him? Grievous then would be your trespass …

The writings of the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and Abdu’l-Baha, the central figures of the Baha’i Faith, say nothing more specific about abortion. Their writings do provide, however, further spiritually-based guidance for Baha’is on various issues not revealed in the original Baha’i teachings. Baha’u’llah empowered the democratically-elected global leadership body of the Baha’is, the Universal House of Justice, to legislate on matters not covered in the teachings of the central figures of the Faith. Its decisions, of course, apply only to the world’s Baha’is, but can also serve as spiritual guidance for all people.

The Universal House of Justice wrote about the issue of abortion in a 1975 letter:

Basically the deliberate taking of human life is forbidden in the [Baha’i] Cause, but the Sacred Text envisages certain possible exceptions to this rule and allows for the Universal House of Justice to legislate upon them. One such possible exception is the matter of abortion. … 

In 1983, the Universal House of Justice sent this further guidance on abortion to the Baha’is in Ireland:

Abortion merely to prevent the birth of an unwanted child is strictly forbidden in the [Baha’i] Cause. There may, however, be instances in which an abortion would be justified by medical reasons, and legislation on this matter has been left to the Universal House of Justice. At the present time, however, the House of Justice does not intend to legislate on this very delicate issue, and therefore it is left to the consciences of those concerned who must carefully weigh the medical advice in the light of the general guidance given in the [Baha’i] teachings.

To sum up: Baha’i law considers human life sacred; recognizes and respects the innate spiritual potential of every unborn child; and while it condemns the killing of any soul, it also allows the mother to rely on her conscience and the advice of her physician to make the difficult ultimate decisions regarding abortion.

To some, this may at first seem like a contradictory stance – but Baha’is don’t see it that way at all. In fact, in a 1988 communication to the Baha’i world, the Universal House of Justice more fully explained how these seemingly contradictory positions could be reconciled, unified, and practically applied:

… it should be noted that in most areas of human behaviour there are acts which are clearly contrary to the law of God and others which are clearly approved or permissible; between these there is often a grey area where it is not immediately apparent what should be done. It has been a human tendency to wish to eliminate these grey areas so that every aspect of life is clearly prescribed. A result of this tendency has been the tremendous accretion of interpretation and subsidiary legislation which has smothered the spirit of certain of the older religions. In the Baha’i Faith moderation, which is so strongly upheld by Baha’u’llah, is applied here also. … whereby an area of the application of the laws is intentionally left to the conscience of each individual believer. This is the age in which mankind must attain maturity, and one aspect of this is the assumption by individuals of the responsibility for deciding, with the assistance of consultation, their own course of action in areas which are left open by the law of God.

It should also be noted that it is neither possible nor desirable for the Universal House of Justice to set forth a set of rules covering every situation. Rather is it the task of the individual believer to determine, according to his own prayerful understanding of the [Baha’i] Writings, precisely what his course of conduct should be in relation to situations which he encounters in his daily life. … The believer cannot attain this objective merely by living according to a set of rigid regulations. When his life is oriented towards service to Baha’u’llah, and when every conscious act is performed within this frame of reference, he will not fail to achieve the true purpose of his life.

In the annals of religion, this approach represents something entirely new. 

Rather than attempting to construct and then follow a comprehensive, complex, literal set of interpretations, rules, precedents, legalisms, and arbitrary laws fashioned by manmade dictums, the Baha’i teachings rely on individual believers to carefully and prayerfully try to understand the new set of moral and spiritual guidelines brought by Baha’u’llah, intelligently consider their own choices in light of those principles, and then act accordingly. This gives agency and responsibility to the spirit and conscience of the individual, instead of placing all authority in religious or governmental structures.

If you or a loved one ever has to make the very difficult decisions regarding abortion, you may want to incorporate this spiritual guidance into your thinking.

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