Unit 6: Inventing Bioethics

By Haley Stevenson

This post centers primarily on our reading by Bob Simpson: “Impossible Gifts: Bodies, Buddhism and Bioethics in Contemporary Sri Lanka.” Simpson’s main question aims to address “the ways in which new possibilities for the donation of gametes and embryos might be made sense of in Sri Lankan society, and, furthermore, the conflicts that arise between Sinhala Buddhist readings of these transactions and those of other ethnic and religious groupings, notably Tamil Hindus and Muslims” (840). For contemporary Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka, donation is an important step in the long journey towards enlightenment. The most important aspects of donation include the quality of the donation, the spiritual purity of the donation, and the kind and size of the donation. And of these donations there is donating worldly goods, body parts, and ultimately one’s own life (843). The idea of the “ultimate gift” being one’s own life is a difficult idea to accept for most people. But, if your eventual goal is enlightenment, then this makes sense. 

More common than giving one’s life are the “eyes, head, flesh, blood” that come from Buddhist folk literature. It has become part of the identity of Buddhists to donate oneself in the form of blood donation and other parts of the body (849). That is where donation of sperm and eggs have come into conversation. With almost every new technological advancement, there are deep cultural values and expectations that must be navigated when exploring them. In the case of sperm donation, Simpson talks about the strong cultural guidelines that have dictated the availability and advancement of sperm donation and reception. Simpson says that for Buddhists and people of other faiths in Sri Lanka, sperm is one of the most valuable bodily substances. And the means by which sperm is produced for the purposes of donation – masturbation – is extremely problematic (853-854). Yet conversely, the same social outlook does not apply to the donation of eggs – where the idea of donating eggs is met with far less opposition. 

The idea that sperm is the most precious substance a body can produce, coupled with the notion that egg donation is met with less opposition, speaks to the importance of cultural values in this case. There is no secular scientific evidence that proves sperm is of more importance than eggs. If anything, they are pretty much equal when it comes to creating a human life. But Buddhist ideals, and other faiths in Sri Lanka according to Simpson, place higher importance on sperm and its release from the body over eggs. 

A person from a Western culture may think Buddhists are wrong for viewing sperm and eggs in this way, given they are not from this background. But, one thing I learned from an anthropology class last year was that, just because something may seem wrong (and may even be wrong) doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Just like in our American society, people hold ideals that may seem wrong, hurtful, or harmful. But anthropology taught me that regardless of those things, the societal norms we put in place shape how we act within those realms and with each other. Norms, expectations, vocabulary, ideals, are all glue that guide how we act within society. Thus, how Buddhists view sperm and egg donation is not wrong, rather it is how they navigate this new scientific frontier.

I do not believe that sperm and egg donation should be viewed differently as the donation of other parts of the body. Especially if we are operating under the idea of “the gift of life.” For what better way could you gift life than gifting sperm or eggs? But of course, I am not Buddhist and I do not understand the deep intricacies of Buddhist philosophy. Rather this is my outside perspective based on minimal knowledge and the article written by Simpson. Thus I appreciate Simpson’s glimpse into the perspective of Buddhist thought on sperm and egg donation, for it differs greatly from how I, and many others in Western societies, view it. 

Simpson, Bob. “Impossible Gifts: Bodies, Buddhism and Bioethics in Contemporary Sri Lanka.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 10, no. 4, 2004, pp. 839–859. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3803857. Accessed 8 July 2021.

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