This week’s texts examine the role of religion in shaping the medical ethics of reproductive technology from perspectives other than that of an Abrahamic faith tradition, namely Hinduism and Buddhism. Whereas Bhattacharyya’s Magical Progeny and Technology applies an interfaith discussion of ethics and integrates such principles to real life cases, Simpson’s Impossible Gifts: Bodies, Buddhism, Bioethics in Contemporary Sri Lanka has an intrafaith comparison of the methodology of mobilizing the Sri Lankan public through Buddhist principles to participate in tissue and gamete donation, or the act of symbolic “gift giving”. Both texts grapple with how to interpret and apply medical ethics derived from a religious order in a religiously pluralistic world.
Bhattacharyya’s Magical Progeny and Technology effectively strives to determine the way religion informs ethics in a clinical setting by using a comparative approach between Hinduism and Christianity. She first examines the relationship between religion, medicine, and medical ethics using a historical lens to educate the reader as to how Chrisitianity informed much of the ethical principles and laws in the US until the rise of secularism and religious plurality. Simultaneously, the author compares this to the history of medicine in Hinduism by describing principles in the Ayurvedas, a religious script entailing ancient Indian medical practices and ethics. This is followed by the author providing a thorough recall of some of the key takeaways from one of the most referenced works in shaping Hindu philosophy: the Mahabharata. Doing so introduces the reader to the context in which Hindu ethics originates from and highlights parts of the stories that are relevant to discussions on reproductive rights. Once again the author compares topics like the desire to have offspring, women’s autonomy in procreation, and the creative means taken to bring forth a child to the explicit rules of the Catholic church. Bhattacharyya boils down the story to uncover six characteristics of Hindu thought. I was especially impressed with the way the author used the next chapter to explain and apply Hindu thought and principles in assessing the case of Jaycee Buzzanca. This methodology is effective in showing Hindu principles in action.
I was particularly interested by the birth narratives in the Mahabharata. Often times when Hindus in my personal experience have discussed this epic, the focus is on the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna, in which they discuss the path of righteousness and inform Hindu ethics and philosophy seen today. The author does an outstanding job summarizing the key takeaways from this conversation which outline the aims of a Hindu’s life. The birth narratives focus on the women in the Mahabharata as they face and overcome issues with infertility using innovative measures. Bhattacharyya then connects the attitudes reflected in their attempts as using divine intervention is brought about through modern medicine today. For example, Gandhari’s usage of clay pots to “grow” her children mimics the process of IVF. Another topic discussed is the usage of sperm donation, niyoga, in which Pandu permits his wife Kunti to become inseminated by another man if he himself is infertile. However, she opts to not go through this route even though this act is clearly delineated from “adultery” and chooses a divine intervention where she can have a say in which deity will father her child. I am intrigued by the duality that exists in which a woman is powerful enough to choose her method of reproductive technology while another text “utilizes a metaphor likening the woman’s womb to a field” (Bhattacharyya 40) and a man’s sperm is seen as “seed” that is on the field and can be shared for the purpose of having a child.
As a practicing Hindu, I was particularly interested as to why the author chose to compare Hinduism, a multifaceted religion with no founder or hierarchy, but a multitude or interpretations, sacred texts, and deities to a mostly uniform, monotheistic, hierarchical, and structured sect of Christianity like Catholicism. I was curious to see how the author would draw comparisons given the multitude of texts and mythological stories available in Hinduism and the main sacred text of Christianity. While the author acknowledges the diversity and complexity of Hinduism especially as it is practiced today, she makes clear that this comparison was necessary due to the prevalence of Christian principles in not just national law-making in the United States, but also internationally given the political influence of the Vatican on limiting the access to reproductive technology research.
Simpson’s text takes place in Sri Lanka where the prevailing religion is Buddhism. A key concept of “ethical publicity” is the impact that the surrounding culture has in determining one’s motivations for gift giving. What separates Buddhist notions of giving and doing good deeds is that the apparent “benefit” of a kind action could be negated from having the wrong intention. After Simpson highlights the 10 imperfections in Buddhism and the three “donations,” a much more focused story is told. The first one is the donation of food, the second is the donation of body parts, and the third is sacrificing one’s life. Like the Hindu text, the giving of body parts is highlighted in textual mythology in Buddhism when a king is persuaded to give up his own eyesight as he gave the gift of sight to others (Bhattacharyya 844). However, the issue is slightly different with blood donation. Many people of other faiths felt excluded as such donations were “unmistakably Buddhist idioms which are often alienating to those of other faiths” (Simpson 849). Comparatively, as Hinduism is more of a pluralistic religion, Bhattacharya mentions that Hindus could generally worship and see the divine in other faiths as well. I feel that this is too much of a simplification to make, as just because a religion is polytheistic does not mean that all forms of God are worshipped.
One striking similarity I found across the texts was how the woman enacted more agency in reproduction than the man, despite the prestige, power, and value of sperm. As Spencer notes, sperm is considered the “highest of substances.” in which “one drop of [semen] is believed to be equal to sixty drops of blood” (Simpson 853). However, egg donation is more acceptable as a reproductive technology given that it is more closely aligned to the requirements of the religious principle of dana upa paramita, in that egg extraction involves pain and discomfort while semen extraction is a result of a pleasurable, therefore, self-serving extraction. In the Mahabharata, powerful female figures such as Kunti, Madri, and Gandhari make the final decisions and come up with creative methods to overcome barriers to procreation.
How does the concept of “ethical publicity” from the Buddhist readings compare to the importance of “centrality of societal good” in the six elements of Hindu thought.
Could Simpson have used a comparative methodology for Buddhism?