Unit Six: Inventing Bioethics

Hello everyone! This is a blog post on the readings for Thursday’s class, on the topic ‘Inventing Bioethics’. Bioethics is the study of ethical issues that emerge from advances in biology and medicine. Examples of topics would be organ donation and transplantation, genetic research, and so on. Our first reading on this topic is three chapters from Swasti Bhattacharya’s book Magical Progeny, Modern Technology: A Hindu Bioethics of Reproductive Technology, and the second reading is Bob Simpson’s Impossible Gifts: Bodies, Buddhism and Bioethics in Contemporary Sri Lanka

In her book, Swasti Bhattacharya explores the topic of modern reproductive technology and its relationship with Hinduism. In chapter two, there is a story in Hindu literature called Mahabharata that suggests the idea of the utilization of postmortem sperm. When Bhadra’s husband, the king dies, a hidden voice of the king speaks to her that she may have his baby through his ascetic powers, and this story by Kunti reminds Pandu that there are more options than having a sexual relation with other men to have children. Indeed, these ancient narratives preserve certain attitudes toward conception and child birth, serving as a guidance for the present and future. 

I have never learned about Hinduism before, so I found it interesting that Hinduism welcomes pluralism and alternative views and does not have a monolithic view on a topic, because I used to think that most religions have a clear set of ideas and opinions on different topics. 

Bob Simpson’s article is about the relationship of religion and culture with the donation of human tissue, such as blood, organs, sperm or ova. Specifically, it explores the significance of the donation of gametes and embryos in the Sri Lankan Buddhist context. He also suggests that there is a ‘complex interplay between ideas of intention, biogenetic substance, and the nature of kinship’. 

The idea of ‘the gift of life’ is often associated with the questions around the donation of organs. Simpson mentions that some believe that the gift is no longer a gift when it is launched into the flow of social life. However, I believe that ‘the gift of life’, or one’s body organs can be taken and given as gifts when the donor’s motive is selfless. There are many cases in religions where people make donations in the form of wealth. The donation of body organs is also a self-sacrifice, just in a different form. Indeed, in Buddhist folk literature, the ’eyes, head, flesh, blood’ appear as the four main objects that appear as donations. So, should the donation of the sperm and eggs be viewed differently from the donation of other body parts?  


  1. Hi Roxiie! This was a really insightful post. I love how you used the text to discuss your own opinions – particularly, your opinion about the ‘gift of life.’ I have never thought about donation in that way, probably because it was so implicitly obvious to me. When you donate anything from your body, you are literally giving life.

    As far as the first reading goes, I thought it was interesting how the author compared aspects of modern technology with actions and imperatives of the Hindu gods. The author made explicit comparisons between doctors and gods. That idea ties in well with issues raised in Donum Vitae, which we read several weeks ago, where the authors are against the idea of humans making God-like decisions over life and death.

  2. Hello Roxiie, I liked your analyzation and comments of the readings, and also agree that Hinduism has a unique quality from other religions where it welcomes pluralism and alternate views on a topic, whereas other religions tend to have one perspective.

    In the reading I thought it was interesting how the author compared and contrasted Hindu interpretations of reproductive law to other religions and how they compared to each other. In the stories, it was very unique how ancient stories or scenarios could be translated into modern day reproductive technology. Although I personally don’t think that any ancient text really influences modern day Hindu beliefs as much as other religions may, it still has cultural impact in Indian society and how they may approach reproductive technologies.

  3. I agree that Bhattacharyya’s book suggests a framework for Hindu bioethics as it derives meaning from stories of the supernatural that may be applied to the emerging field of reproductive technology. A lesson that you mention from “Mahabharata” about the many different options that lead to procreation also stood out to me as interesting since it may be used to interpret alternative methods of conception. Ideas expressed in some of the other material discussed in class oppose the increased control that results from such advancements since they allow people to engage in the act of powerful decision making that alters the natural order of things. Some people deem this to be taking the role of God which is problematic as it oversteps the boundary between people and the sanctified. From what I understand, Hinduism incorporates diverse perspectives on the divine and the author applies principles governed by different gods to compare their methods almost equally to the possibilities that exist through modern practices that defy biology. By offering a set of rules that people may emulate to guide their future, how might the establishment of Hindu bioethics affect the diversity of ideas on spirituality and traditions? What is the likelihood that this development may influence other aspects of life or even create a more strict philosophy that adheres to god-like behavior or leads to more uniform thought? The diversity among followers of Hindu practices was mentioned in the text, so I wonder if the existence of different sects within the religion would favor a centralized approach to understanding assisted reproductive technologies especially since they manifest from similar beliefs. How much of the context-dependent nature associated with reproductive choices may patients and professionals take into account when establishing Hindu bioethics for serious medical decisions? Since Hindu principles already seem to align with current practices of reproductive technology, what instances may cause for a change in procedure with the creation of Hindu bioethics to limit assisted reproductive technology?

  4. Hello Roxiie!
    I appreciate your clear and concise summary of Swasti Bhattacharya’s book. As we have already discussed the topics in class, I’d like to point out my thoughts on some of the tensions or challenges brought up between medical practice and religious convictions. Namely, I think that one underlying question brought up is: should healthcare workers be held responsible for understanding different cosmologies or should religious consideration and consult be left to pastors, rabbis, and chaplains? I think that, while healthcare workers may not necessarily be held responsible for understanding particular religious guidelines, they should, as expected, hold a basic understanding of the possibilities for religious interpretations. As Bhattacharya’s title specifies, her version of Hindu bioethics is simply one method of approach. Others may choose to derive their values from different, equally valid, texts, while uncovering different interpretations within their own unique experiences and environment. Thus, I do not think it is possible for doctors to entirely understand the complexity of developing different religious bioethics.
    Another aspect of Bhattacharya’s book that I found interesting was the overall context and purpose of the book, especially since her analysis concluded that most, if not all artificial reproductive technologies are allowed under Hinduism (while being restricted in how often they be used). While I initially questioned the purpose of the dedicating a book to declare all ARTs valid, I think the interpretation of the Mahabharata itself, into English, makes an important step towards pushing Hindu bioethics into the academic sphere. She makes a valid effort in interpreting an important Hindu text within the context of American society, which occupies a space that much literature has simply not covered. I think that this point brought up in class, gives me a new perspective on the purposes of literature and writing besides the practical applications of these understandings within the medical field.

  5. Hi Roxiie! I think your perspective on the ‘gift of life’ is very interesting. When I was reading that article, I had the same concern as the author–can these donations of human tissues really be viewed as acts of altruism/selflessness? Even the teachings of Hinduism state that acts of selflessness will earn a person merit for the next life. Although it is not explicitly stated, it is also clear that the person will earn a good reputation in this life. How, then, are people supposed to completely disregard these tempting motivations? I think it is extremely difficult to act out of selflessness in any society because like the article states, these selfless acts could easily be exploited, leaving the people feeling betrayed and used.

    It’s also interesting to see how flexible and accepting Hinduism is over reproduction and kinship dilemmas. With the idea that people have different dharma (duty) to carry out based on their caste, gender, and status, Hinduism allows for varying methods to solve the same problem and recognizes that the right option for someone may not suit someone else.

  6. Roxiie, thank you for the insightful post. To address your concluding question, I do not think that the donation of sperm and/or eggs should be viewed differently from the donation of other body parts. I completely understand one’s hesitation to my opinion, for almost every culture and religion around the world would view reproductive cells (such as sperm and eggs) as having inherently higher value than any other part of our body. I can see this argument, for no other part of ourselves has the ability to produce life. But wouldn’t that be all the more reason to share, if we so desire? I do not agree with certain views that discount the validity of a child born from donated sperm or eggs. Why would its source diminish its value if it is from a human to begin with? Thus, if the donation of sperm and eggs were to be viewed differently as other body parts, it should be encouraged and celebrated, if anything.

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