Reproductive Rights and Mazdayasna

Lately, especially in the United States of America, the topic of abortion and other myriad related reproductive rights have been at the forefront of the news and dinner table discussions. This is after the Supreme Court of the USA reversed Roe v. Wade, the cornerstone decision that put reproductive rights solely in the hands of the individual as opposed to the State. As such, as part of an educational resource series through FEZANA (Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America) and ZYNA (Zoroastrian Youth of North America), I was asked to write a short and simple theological history on what reproductive rights have meant in Zoroastrianism with a particular focus on the issue of abortion. However, it was then deemed “too controversial” for release so, instead, I present it to you here in a very slightly expanded and edited form.

While the Gathas, the central and oldest compositions of the faith, and the Yasna Haptanghaiti, composed for the first Zoroastrian fellowship, make no mention of reproductive matters beyond encouraging reproduction and also the importance of choice-making, we do know that ancient Zoroastrians, mostly in Sassanian times, viewed abortion as a moral, spiritual, and social crime equal to murder which was a position that seemed to have stuck until the late 20th century. This is seen in the Vendidad, a priestly code compiled during the Sassanian Empire, and other later Pahlavi religious texts that detail methods of abortion and the spiritual (and sometimes physical) punishments that should be accorded to an aborter. However, religious ideas about abortion at this time also included the idea that a fetus was not accorded its urvan (soul) until about four months or so into the pregnancy and that abortion before this time was not murder in any sense and was a right provided to the one bearing the fetus. Throughout Zoroastrian theological history, opinions would differ as to the number of months a pregnancy could continue before abortion was no longer allowed and even whether abortion was allowed at all.

We do know, however, that lay Zoroastrians, particularly women who developed their own set of spiritual practices in some cases, within the lived reality of the religion exchanged abortifacient recipes, special prayers and rituals, and more in contrast and sometimes in direct opposition to some of the priestly establishment. It is important to note, however, that through modern reforms, theological developments including the re-embracing of universalism, and a rapidly-changing social atmosphere, the matter of reproductive rights within the context of the faith has changed to a discussion that harkens back to the Gathas and its centralization of the importance of choice and free will. In fact, it can be said that in all matters, reproductive or not, the right to choose is the most important of our spiritual rights granted to us by Ahura Mazda in contrast to other religious traditions which do not provide such a choice.

Through our alignment to the Path of Asha, our minds can thus be enlightened to make the wisest choice possible in any situation and, when it comes to reproductive rights, it is eventually the individual, in communion with Vohu Manah, who decides the best path for them. We are thus bound spiritually and ethically to respect that despite our opinions on specific issues. As reproductive matters continue to be debated in the faith, we may see a massive change in perception on the matter with the coming generations. Still, for now, it is best to say that while the opinion on abortion itself and other reproductive matters are complex and differing, the opinion on the importance and sacrality of the right to choose is uniform as something no one can take away.