The Ethics of Abortion: A Black Mama’s Wise Contemplation

Zenzele Isoke offers her commentary on the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and why we must collectively establish a new set of political ethics that are peaceful, compassionate, wise, and loving.

Zenzele Isoke
17 July 2022
Photo by Karolina Grabowska.

I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. As a Buddhist practitioner, I understand, that is unwise to take refuge in life and in rights. They, like all things are impermanent. And as a Black American woman taking refuge in life and rights is historically naïve, if not entirely self-defeating. The institutions of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy has all too often rendered Black people rightless before the law and subject to premature death in larger civil society. While there have only been some notable eras of short-lived reprieve, the full enjoyment of liberal right of self-determination, what the preamble of the U.S. constitution describes as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has been consistently undermined produced by racial and gender oppression. Constant attacks on our personhood has produced an unending sense of uncertainty, what Pema Chödrön has described as “groundlessness.” Consequently, Black women have had to learn live by an alternative set of ethics. These are ethics of love, mutuality and self-compassion. We have had to learn how to care for ourselves and each other in a country that has abused and abandoned us.

My first abortion disallowed a seed to come into full fruition. At the same time, I had allowed another seed, my own, to receive the light of wisdom birthed in self-compassion.

My existence in America is the result of a very specific set of causes and conditions. The original cause was the kidnapping, forced migration and enslavement of Black people during the Middle Passage.  I am the product of the violence of rape and forced sexual reproduction essential to development and expansion of American empire. For countless generations Black males and females were sexually abused and exploited in order to perpetuate racial slavery. Our wombs were regulated and policed, made into the first factories of American capitalism. We were forced to bear life to children who would suffer enormously for the benefit of powerful white people. This cycle is now being perpetuated again. Many of the same states that fought a civil war for their “right” to enslave human beings have now been regranted the ability to socially disenfranchise women and girls.

One hundred and sixty-five years after the end of the American civil war, my existence in a Black female body has been marked by all kinds of generational suffering produced by the longe duree of racial slavery. This includes having endured and overcome multigenerational poverty while learning to transcend the social and emotional isolation of racial otherness. My ability to obtain two safe and legal abortions has been a huge factor in my ability to not just only move through this lifetime with less suffering but also to prevent the unnecessary transmission of severe economic and social hardship to my children.

I had my first abortion first when I was nineteen years old. I was in a shallow and unloving on and off again relationship with a person about seven years my senior. My sexual partner was interested in me because of my youth and physical beauty. I was attracted to this person because they gave me attention at a time in my life when I considered myself unlovable. When the pregnancy test turned out positive, I could see no good justification to bring a new child into the world with parents so little to offer: his indifference and my own insecurities, immaturity and lack of self-worth. So I made an emotional and spiritual investment in my own capacity: my ability be the first in my family to finish college and an investment in my own journey toward healing and transformation. I flew home to California, scheduled the abortion and had the procedure with the unknowing assistance of a family member. It cost me about $150 dollars out of pocket with the insurance covering an extra $300 or so. My ability to obtain this abortion was not really reliant on any particular “right” but rather a set of economic privileges that my mother had passed on to me by virtue of her having a job with health benefits and choosing to live in state where abortions were accessible and affordable.

After receiving abortion care, I felt a huge burden lifted from me. While recovering, I had time to rest and take care of myself. I experienced a sense of tranquility and ease. I had given myself a chance to start anew. A few months later, I began to read and really study some foundational texts that led to a blossoming meditation practice. Through a process that Iyanla Vanzant described as, “Tapping the Power Within,” I learned to honor my ancestors, to respect and pay homage to both the born and the unborn, and learned to sit in stillness. This was a time of great spiritual awakening and rejuvenation for me. The abortion allowed me to end a life-long cycle of allowing my body to be physically used for someone else’s ego and self-gratification. I gave birth to a new pattern of learning how to practice loving-kindness, gentleness and compassion toward myself.

Beginning with slavery, Black American women have had to work harder and longer than any other group of people in this country. Still, no matter how hard we have worked and played by the crooked rules of American democracy at any time we can be wholly dispossessed of our right to determine our own destinies based upon what state we live in. In the former slave-owning states of Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Florida, Black women were robbed of our ability to be a peace with our own bodies. Like slaves, we are once again being forced to birth humans who will no doubt suffer due to cruel and inadequate conditions. We are once more being forced into a state of spiritual and economic entrapment.

My first abortion disallowed a seed to come into full fruition. At the same time, I had allowed another seed, my own, to receive the light of wisdom birthed in self-compassion. I had no regrets, no sadness, just deep gratitude for another opportunity to break the chains of generational poverty and hardship rooted in slavery and racial injustice. Four years later, at age twenty-four, I became pregnant with my first daughter.  I was a first-year student in graduate school. This time, I was in love with a person who seemed to genuinely love me. I was convinced that he would make a good partner to me and an outstanding father to our unborn child. I wanted the life growing in me, which I believed was a genuine expression of the purest love that I had thus far experienced. Two and a half years later I was pregnant again. Mothering was good work but hard work. My relationship with my children’s father was just hard. For a short time, I wanted to just give up, leave the relationship and end the pregnancy but things weren’t  quite that simple. More than my own individual preference, my partner and I really wanted our first child to have a sibling. So I carried the pregnancy to term and our first daughter had the sibling we wanted her to have. I was so happy for the moment I pushed my second baby girl out. I had no regrets about this decision. It was good and right, and honestly, having two daughters was even more beautiful and joyous than just having one. I was so happy. So, I devoted my life to raising my two daughters together as a pair.

Allowing certain states to ban abortions does not help mothers or babies, but it does harm families and communities.

My third pregnancy was different. At age twenty-nine, while writing my dissertation, it was more difficult to imagine finishing school with yet another child. The relationship between my daughter’s father and I had become emotionally abusive and suffocating. I felt trapped and deeply overwhelmed about the prospects of parenting a third child in a relationship that had gone south. My youngest daughter was nearly four years old and my oldest was six years old. I wanted my body back. I wanted to be free to move and grow and learn as a fully adult human. I quietly ended the pregnancy. The abortion was sad and tragic, yet necessary. And I still grieve and have mixed feelings about that time. The pregnancy itself was a result of me not having the inner strength to end a bad relationship sooner. It was during that time that I first came across Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Anger and bell hooks’ book All About Love.

Two years later, my partner and I separated and resolved to co-parent our daughter’s long distance. I got a full-time job teaching and I had my first taste of real adulthood–doing the hard work of tending to myself and my daughters on my own terms and creating a life more purposeful, enjoyable and loving. I was glad that I was able to provide my two daughters with a beautiful and safe home, send them to decent schools, and had the resources to ensure that they could participate in all kinds of extracurricular activities that I had the time to observe and support. I never missed a game or a performance or a birthday. Each abortion, while preventing the growth of a new life, also made it possible for me to direct my energy toward cherishing and nurturing the existing lives that needed my energy even more.

To all of those who grow plants and tend to trees, flowers and vegetable gardens, it is well known that crowded seedlings make it nearly impossible for life to thrive. All seeds are not fertilized, and most fertilized seeds don’t grow into towering oaks, brilliant bunches of tiger lilies, or full and sweet heirloom tomatoes. Human life, like all life, is no different. This is dharma. This knowledge, like my teacher Mark Nunberg might say, tenderizes the heart. Thinning seedlings, trimming overgrown branches, and even terminating a human pregnancy, I believe, can be an act of deep ecological compassion. At the micro-level this process is called pruning, at the macro-level it is called wise cultivation. Both can be wise and compassionate spiritual practices that allows all life to flourish in great abundance.

10,000 Joys, 10,000 Sorrows

Birthing people have had miscarriages, both induced and involuntary, as long as they have been having babies. Allowing certain states to ban abortions does not help mothers or babies, but it does harm families and communities. Lack of access to abortion increases the likelihood of maternal death, and increases the likelihood that children and their families will live in poverty. Disallowing people to end unwanted pregnancies runs counter to an ethic of mutuality, reciprocity, and basic friendliness toward others.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade has pathologized a maternal practice that women have engaged in the world over. This decision was a bold, reckless and mean-spirited re-application of the same white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal, pseudo-Christian values that justified slavery. Allowing the mostly white and mostly male elected officials of a particular state to override the spiritual discernment of pregnant people is antithetical to the values of mutuality, respect and compassion, which are foundational to the first precept of non-harming. Like other times in our checkered past, we have collectively allowed certain states to render Black women rightless–forcing the poor and powerless to have children that society is unable and unwilling to support. Like the passages of the Black Codes after Reconstruction, our ability to exercise the basic rights of personhood has been snatched away from us under the guise of “state’s rights.” This is the way of things, and until we collectively establish a new set of political ethics that are peaceful and compassionate, wise and loving, things will continue as they are.

Today, my two daughters are well-loved, well-educated and both hold full time jobs doing what they love. One is going on to graduate school to study public health with an emphasis on sex education for LGBTQ youth. Neither of them can imagine bringing another life into this world.  To my knowledge, my daughters don’t have reproductive sex. They don’t want kids because of the damage humans have done to the climate, the debt structure of our economy, and ongoing political divisiveness that might well lead to a second civil war. To them giving birth seems profoundly unfair. It saddens me, because I want grandkids, for selfish reasons, but causes and conditions suggest otherwise at this time.

I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported by my kamma. All the kamma I shall do, for good or for ill will, of that I will be the heir. Thus we should frequently recollect. – Excerpt taken from the Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection

In conclusion, thinking through the ability to safely end an unwanted pregnancy is more than just about rights and life. I think we have to center the ethics of wisdom, compassion, mutuality and true love. And by this, I mean our ability to love those who make decisions that we cannot fully understand while turning away from historic patterns of racial and gender dispossession rooted in severe power differentials, self-righteousness, and deep disregard for the personal integrity of who exist at the very bottom of systemic hierarchies.

This article was created in collaboration with Buddhist Justice Reporter (BJR), founded by BIPOC Buddhist practitioners in response to the police torture and murder of George Floyd. BJR publishes articles on issues related to environmental, racial, and social justice and its intersections, from an anti-racist Buddhist lens. 

Zenzele Isoke

Zenzele Isoke

Zenzele Isoke, Ph.D. Zenzele Isoke is a black feminist theorist, urban ethnographer, and political storyteller. She is the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota and the author of Urban Black Women and the Politics of Resistance (Palgrave 2013). Zenzele leads meditation groups through Common Ground Meditation Center and Yoga Room in North Minneapolis.