Thursday, May 26, 2005

Buddhism, ethics, and stem-cells

Stem Cells and Buddhism, an ethics dilemma?

I just came across this article:

This makes for a nice article on how non-dogmatic Buddhism can be: encouraging a person to reason about the motivations of actions, rather than relying on hand-me-down rules. I'm not sure, though, about his claim that Buddhist embryology leaves out the earliest stages of the embryo (immediately following conception).

James J. Hughes and Damien Keown in a paper here, state, "most Buddhist commentators have adopted classical Hindu teachings that the transmigration of consciousness occurs at conception, and therefore that all abortion incurs the karmic burden of killing. Before modern embryology, however, in both Buddhist countries and the West, ideas about conception were scientifically inaccurate, and often associated the beginning of life with events in the third or fourth month of pregnancy (for a discussion of traditional Tibetan embryology, see Dhonden, 1980 and Lecso,1987)."

It would seem that now that we know conception takes place as the instigator of pregnancy, it would seem that 'conception' would begin with simply the egg and the sperm. So it would seem that Mr. Hwang may be off a bit.

BUT... He is right to think that Buddhism emphasizes compassion, wherein compassionate motives are of chief importance. Another consideration, raised in the Hughes/Keown paper, is that there may be 'degrees' of consciousness/personhood. Even though the 'being' has entered the physical basis at conception, it may be a matter of time before 'personhood' is fully developed. Remember that animals have some degree of 'personhood' in that an animal may have been your great-grandmother in its last life, and may be reborn as your child, and so any cruelty toward it is wrong. However, cruelty toward an animal is less wrong than cruelty toward a person. The degrees seem to hinge mainly on the capacity of the animal to suffer, a horse has more sentience (ability to feel pain/pleasure) than a fish; hence cruelty to a horse is worse; and cruelty toward a gnat would be of the least consequence (but still some).

So... letting go of the pro-life argument that every embryo is (if not a person already which has major conceptual problems) a potential-person (every living being in Buddhism is a potential-person, if not one already), we can see that doing experiments on/extracting stem-cells from an embryo is going to be of very little negative moral consequence. Further, the altruistic, compassionate intention (if that is truly his intention) creates great positive moral consequence, more than offsetting the negative.

Meanwhile, that cheese-burger or chicken salad you're eating... :) jw


Spencer P. Nagle said...

When Buddha was an embryo, did he act with compassion?

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Good question, Spencer. I believe the traditional stories of the Buddha's birth and time in his mother's womb are so mythical that it's hard to give a meaningful answer. The simplest answer would be yes, total compassion - even being born from his mothers side, painlessly for her. Another answer would be, who knows? I think it may have even been the case that he entered his mother's womb -descending from tushita heaven- fully developed and thus never was an embryo.