Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Buddhist Bioethics And Theological Aspects Of Stem Cell Research And Cloning

Buddhist Bioethics And Theological Aspects Of Stem Cell Research And Cloning


The Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

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Buddhist Bioethics And Theological Aspects Of Stem Cell Research And Cloning


Stem Cell Research is progressing at a fast pace in modern era. Though initially, it was aimed at reconstructing the vital body organs, but now it is inclined towards Cloning the human. There is a rapid and astonishing progress in the field of Cloning since the making of “Dolly” – the first cloned sheep, a few years ago. So, now we need to assess the situation and decide whether we should go ahead with Cloning a whole human being or not. The ethical issues and religious perspectives need to be judged to take a final decision by the scientific forum. Though Judaism and Islam are vocal in their support of Cloning research, but Christianity has blanket prohibition. Judging the intensity of human ambitions and the fact that there exists no strict judicious control over Stem Cell Research at present, Cloning technology is also not encouraged according to the Buddhist Bioethics.

Key words: Stem Cell, Cloning, Theological, Bioethics, Research

Buddhist Bioethics And Theological Aspects Of Stem Cell Research And Cloning

Stem cells are blank cells that have the potential to develop into any type of cell in the body. Scientists are trying to harvest the cells before they have differentiated, then coax them into becoming certain types. Stem cells are one of the human body's master cells, with the ability to grow into any one of the body's more than 200 cell types. They contribute to the body's ability to renew and repair its tissues. Unlike mature cells, the stem cells can both renew themselves as well as create new cells of whatever tissue they belong to (and other tissues). Following this theory, bone marrow stem-cell transfusions (or transplants) are often done to replace various types of blood cells. The concept of this kind of research was believed to be in the minds of the Indians since long back.

The Adi-Parva of Mahabharata gives clear indication that the Kauravas were born from the stem cells. Human Cloning means the asexual replication of a human individual by taking of cells with genetic materials and cultivation of these cells through egg, embryo and finally into human being. There is a rapid and astonishing progress in the field of Cloning since the making of “Dolly” – the first cloned sheep, a few years ago. “George” and “Charlie”, the two identical, genetically engineered calves that could make medicines in their milk were also successfully created. While “dolly” was cloned from a cell taken from an adult mammal, “Charlie” and “George” were cloned from cells taken from fetuses which are an easier process.

Benefits of Stem Cell Research
Stem Cell Research is a major breakthrough in the treatment of certain incurable diseases. It has a bouquet of benefits for managing several incurable non-communicable diseases like Type-I Diabetes Mellitus, where transplantation of either the entire pancreas or isolated islet cells could reduce or do away with the need for insulin injections. In Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, brain trauma, spinal cord injury and Parkinson’s disease the replacement of damaged nerve cells with nerve cells generated from pluripotent stem cells is a possible therapy. There is also scope to develop heart muscle cells from human pluripotent stem cells and transplant them into the heart muscles in order to augment the function of a failing heart. Drugs can first be tested in cell lines before further testing in laboratory animals and humans. Researchers are now on the verge of devising ways to use specialized cells derived from stem cells to target specific cancerous cells. If we can identify natural signals that control the proliferation and specialization of stem cells, we may be able to help the brain repair itself in certain vulnerable regions.

The embryonic stem cells can generate any cell line, except the human placenta. In the recent years, instead of just limiting their research to developing identical human body organs, the overenthusiastic scientists are planning to clone a whole human being. This has given rise to a lot of controversies. Whether Cloning should be done in human or not is a hotly debated subject of modern era.

(A) Views in Favor of Cloning
(1) The Stem Cell Research may lead to Cloning a whole human being. In that case, if we can accept surrogate motherhood as an ethically acceptable process, Cloning is more or less the same.
(2) If Cloning is considered a violation of one’s rights then preventing it also means violation of scientist’s rights.
(3) Cloned individuals need not be necessarily being identified with the donor. As, even identical twins are different from each other, influenced by environment and other psycho-social factors.
(4) In organ and bone marrow transplants, threat of rejection is a big problem. In Cloning, these organs would be an exact genetic match of the recipient and so there will be no rejection.
(5) Emotional and religious sentiments need not be weighed against scientific progress if it is ultimately for the benefit for humanity. Ethics should be secular and not religious.

(B) Views against Cloning
(1) Every form of reproductive technology raises the question of human values, dignity, worth, jurisdictional rights. A person should not be used as a mere mechanical instrument. Human being is an unrepeatable entity.
(2) Cloned embryo may undergo mutation and can lead to the creation of a monster instead of a human being.
(3) Natural birth is a product of human love. In Cloning, the values of love and human procreation are missing. It violates human relationships between husband and wife and between parents and children.

(C) Ambiguities Related to Cloning
- Is the clone an offspring or a sibling?
- Does the clone have one biological parent or two? If no one is considered to be the parent, then who is responsible for the clone?
- What about the question of creating a super- race through accidental mutation?
- The question of baby-selling and commercial surrogacy arises. The family as we know today will no longer exist. Parental motivation will not be the same. This could create a psychological impact on the clone.

Theological Aspects of Stem Cell Research
Religion can exert influence over the public and political opinions when it comes to moral arguments. It is alleged that since the embryo cannot independently survive; it must not be considered as a human “person.” As the embryo does not possess self-awareness, it should not be considered as a human “being.” In the science of logic, if human embryos are not “living persons,” then there is nothing wrong with manufacturing them in vast quantities and randomly using them for experimental purposes. But we should keep in mind that Stem Cell Research would cause injury towards animal and plant species during experimental studies in laboratories. If not properly utilized, excess production of cloned organs might pose a threat to environmental pollution and cause health hazards to living beings.

Hinduism and Stem Cell Research
Hindu Vedas strictly instructs abstinence from destroying not all living beings even for the larger benefit of human race. In this perspective, Cloning should not be encouraged under any circumstances by Hindu religion.

Islamic View on Stem Cell Research
Qur’an explains that a fetus is actually perceived initially as a human life and later on its biological development takes place. Many scholars indicate that ensoulment of the fetus does not occur until the end of the fourth month of pregnancy (120 days). Judaism & Islam have similar beliefs on ensoulment of fetus. Thus, according to Islam, obligation towards knowledge coupled with its tradition towards not allowing surrogate parenting or embryo adoption leads many Islamic scholars to believe that the Qur’an can be used to support Stem Cell Research. This also holds true for Judaism.

Christianity and Stem Cell Research
Christianity considers the embryo as a “human person,” and if human life is sacred, then it is not moral to produce it for experimental purposes. We cannot act as “gods” and can play with the lives of our fellows—regardless of how tiny and defenseless they are. So, the Vatican has expressed sadness and dismay at the proposal for this human Cloning venture by stating that this process of Cloning violates the right of a human being to be conceived in human way.

Buddhism and Stem Cell Research
All the bioethical issues that have been discussed in recent years, are the questions and challenges which Buddhism has never encountered before, Buddhism has to reflect on its traditional understanding in a new way to meet new circumstances. Such adaptation is necessary and does not violate the teaching because Buddhism itself teaches us not to cling to any belief and practice, but to direct our attention to reality for releasing suffering from human kind.

Buddhist Concept of Life
The Buddhist perspective on life, suffering and death can never be truly understood unless we understand the Buddhist laws of causality (Paticcasamuppada) and mutation. These two laws are natural laws that operate universally in all physical and mental phenomena. Each "event" or "happening" acts as the cause for the arising of the following event, which then provokes another event. In this sense the preceding cause transmits its potential force to the following effect. This concept is used to emphasize that life consists of interwoven activities of causes and effects, referred to as the kamma process, which is volitional activity whether mental, verbal or physical. The relationship between cause and effect is that both the earlier and later phases are an integral part of a single process with many psychophysical factors mutually conditioning one another. Life is made possible because of the continuous interaction of these conditioning and conditioned factors. With no beginning and no end point, life is thus considered to be a continuous process of an endless cycle. Death is considered as an integral part of existence and is one phase of this endless cycle and cannot terminate the cycle. This conditioned existence is called samsara and represented in Buddhist art by the Wheel of Life (bhavacakra). So, according to Buddhism, stem cells or embryos have life since they are integral components of the continuous life cycle.

Buddhist Bioethics with regard to Cloning
According to Buddhism, organ or tissue donation is a commendable act of compassion. But it is a matter of individual conscience. From this point of view it appears that Buddhist bioethics would definitely support the good harvests from Stem Cell Research for Primordial Prevention and Treating chronic and debilitating morbid conditions like Diabetes, Coronary Heart Disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Stroke, Cancer etc. We should also keep in mind that if not properly utilized, excess production of cloned human organs might pose a threat to environmental pollution and cause injury to living beings. It would also affect the socio-economic conditions of every individual since the production; preservation and application of these cloned body parts are very costly. Due to over enthusiasm and greed to play the role of an almighty, the scientists might try to create a completely whole body cloned human being. Criminals might use this technology for posing threat to human beings and nature. Hence, such a futile human Cloning would be quite opposite to the concept of non-injury to life as mentioned in the Digha-Nikaya of Pali Canon.

The Buddha’s profound appreciation for the universal existence of suffering evoked a great compassionate response (karuna) and loving kindness (metta) for all living beings. The very first percept among the Five Precepts (paƱca sila), which form the minimum code of ethics for all the followers of Buddhism, involves abstention from injury to life. It is explained as casting aside of all forms of weapons and being conscientious about depriving a living being of life and promotes the cultivation of compassion and sympathy for all living beings. Buddhism also tirelessly advocates the virtues of non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion in all human pursuits. Our attachment with material world often provokes possessiveness and obsession that culminates into greed to achieve more wealth, fame and honor that leads to sorrow and unhealthy consequences. The human mind should abandon greed and nurture the spirit of simple living and contentment. Contentment (santutthi) is a much praised virtue in Buddhism. However, living in contentment does not mean the elimination of desire of knowledge and truth. It helps us to live in harmony with all living beings and with nature.

The Nandivisala Jataka illustrates how loving kindness should be shown to animals. Man and beast can live in harmony without fear of one another if only man cultivates sympathy and regards all life with compassion. From the understanding of kamma and rebirth, it is possible for human beings to be reborn in subhuman states as animals. Kindness to animals, irrespective of whether they are big or small, is a source of merit to improve the kamma in the cycle of rebirths towards attaining the final goal of Nibbana.

Stem Cell Research and Cloning should be viewed with the focus in mind that it causes injury towards animal and plant species during experimental studies in laboratories. Though Judaism and Islam are vocal in their support of Stem Cell and Cloning research, but Christianity has blanket prohibition. Since, Buddhism strictly instructs abstinence from destroying not only human lives but also all living beings and the understanding of death is perceived as a process and is not an event, it supports the total brain death approach and prohibits the premature removal of organs for transplantation. Though selective Stem Cell Research could be considered, but there is no limit to human ambitions. So, there is a high possibility that this Stem Cell Research and Cloning technology could be misused in future to pose a threat to the society. Apart from this, there is also no strict judicious control over Stem Cell Research at present. Hence, Stem Cell Research and Cloning technology for any purpose, whatever might be its need and urgency, is never encouraged according to the Buddhist Bioethics till date.


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