Magical Progeny, Modern Technology

Swasti Bhattacharyya wrote and published Magical Progeny, Modern Technology: A Hindu Bioethics of Assisted Reproductive Technology in 2006. Dr. Bhattacharyya is a professor of philosophy and religion and has a background as a nurse. Her healthcare background provides her insight into pragmatic bioethics with consideration of Hindu and Indian ideologies.

Bhattacharyya acknowledges that Westerners have reified religion, and consequently, dominated discussions while non-Western voices have mostly been excluded from shaping American ideology, including bioethics, despite the ever-expanding pluralism and diversity brought in and cultivated by immigrants. Religion permeates through our ways of being and is inseparable from culture, philosophy, politics and the social, which is why cultural competency, or cultural humility, is necessary for medical competency. It is necessary to listen to perspectives that are different than our own in order to understand people and communicate effectively because no one knows everything, and we cannot expect to intuitively know everything. So, here we are, listening to what Dr. Bhattacharyya has to say about Hindu bioethics while keeping in mind that Hinduism has many facets and voices. If I had to choose an excerpt from the book to reflect what Bhattacharyya wants to highlight about Hindu thought, it would be this:

“Rather than focusing on prohibiting various actions, the Hindu ethic… emphasizes the presupposition that all are ultimately interconnected, that each of us has a particular dharma a commitment to ahimsa, and that karma ultimately holds each of us responsible for all of our actions” (108).

Dharma is difficult to define but essentially informs people how to behave. Individuals should live on “a path of ahisma, ‘no harm’ or nonviolence’” and act with nonmaleficence and benevolence (73) with consideration to the greater good of society because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Individuals should also live with respect to karma, which means “action,” that fundamentally “ is the cause of current situations and the determinant for the future… making humans directly responsible for both the positive and negative fruits of their actions” (73).

These elements are highlighted by the Mahabharata, a wide-read and influential text that includes narratives that inform Hindu and Indian way of life. For example, if we look at stories about Kunti, Madri, and Gandhari, we find that matriarchs participate in actions that can be related to reproductive technology. Kunti rejected niyoga, which is a “levirate marriage or traditional practice that allows a women to have sexual intercourse with a man other than her husband for this express purpose [of producing heirs]” (35) and instead, she used a mantra gifted by the God Durvasas to produce three sons engendered by the gods of her choice. This was a form of genetic selection and models modern sperm donation. Niyoga reminds me of Jewish law, which allows temporary marriage for the purposes of conceiving children. Similarly, Madri used Kunti’s mantra to produces sons engendered by the God of twins. Gandhari’s story involves an extended pregnancy that produced a ball of clotted blood. After asking a God to give her the 100 children she was promised instead of a clotted ball, Gandhari was given instructions that allowed her to create 100 embryos out of the clotted blood, and she used clay pots to incubate the embryos. A connection could be drawn from this story to “’artificial wombs’ that gestate the developing embryos until they are brought to term” (46) as well as modern day “Clomid (clomiphene citrate), IVF, GIFT, ZIFT, etc. which often result in development of multiple embryos” (47).

These narratives illustrate the importance of procreation and kinship for the purposes of continuing the family line. Bhattacharyya says that “there are few if any limitations on the utilization of creative means in one’s attempt to produce [a] son,” and the Mahabharata would condone surrogacy, sperm donation, gene selection, and embryonic manipulation based on the stories (51-52). Unlike the Catholic Church’s clear stance against conception without sexual intercourse, the Mahabharata does not consider the act of sexual intercourse necessary for procreation. Additionally, the matriarchs of the Mahabharata stories take control pretty much as equally as the Gods. This contrasts the stories in the Bible where God takes charge of procreation and humans to have little to no control. Biblical stories of Abraham and Sarah, Issac and Rebekah, Rachel and Jacob, Elizabeth and Zechariah as well as Mary illustrate God’s control over procreation. To that end, the stories of Tamar and Judah, Naomi and Ruth show us that humans can still take some control.

Bhattacharyya shifts from narrative to pragmatic bioethics and introduces us to the case of Jaycee Buzzanca. John and Luanne, a married couple, decided to use IVF to conceive Jaycee, and commissioned Ms. Snell to be the surrogate mother. After the fact, John claimed “dissolution of marriage” and did not wish to financially support Jaycee (78), but the California Court of Appeals ruled that “even in the absence of a genetic or biological relationship, parental relationships may be established when the intended parents initiate and consent to reproductive medical procedures” (79). The court considered individual rights and what would be best for individuals, which reflects American cosmology.

Hinduism, on the other hand, puts emphasis on individuals in the context of their communities and societies. Hinduism does not construct a rigid definition of family and does not require people to be blood-related in order to be considered family. “Family” could include immediate family members, extended family members, neighbors, or community members. A father would not necessarily need to be biologically related because Hinduism is more concerns with the father that “invests time and energy in the process of raising the child” (92). To that end, since John intended on creating Jaycee and was circumstantially able to provide a means of support for Jaycee, then John was obligated to do so according to the dharma of parenthood. Hinduism emphasizes that for the good of society, parents like John need to see their commitments through and take responsibility for their children. It is important to point out that, unlike the Catholic Church whose opinion on conception and responsibility to children is black and white, Hinduism dabbles in liminal space and considers circumstance, intent, dharma, karma, and ahimsa, which can modify the results and ethical implications of cases. All in all, if we take lessons and make bioethical interpretations and applications based on the Mahabharata, we should make decisions and carry out actions that maximize elements of dharma, karma, and ahimsa.

Reading Magical Progeny, Modern Technology, I wonder how the American healthcare system can include voices that have historically been left out and integrate these voices into its systems. Do medical schools have education on medical ethics involving culture and religion? Should healthcare workers be held responsible for understanding different cosmologies or should religious consideration and consult be left to pastors, rabbis, and chaplains?