Author Archives: Vraj Patel

Vraj Patel Unit 7 Blog: Inventing Bioethics

This unit’s works place an emphasis on the role of religion in reproductive technology and furthermore discusses implications of religion’s role in streamlining many bioethical decisions and ways of thinking in society when intertwined with culture, philosophy, law and literature. Through these works, we can gain insight into how religious perspectives and values guide contemporary bioethical issues, namely reproductive technology and donation. A common theme acknowledged repeatedly throughout both Swasti Bhattacharyya’s Magical Progeny, Modern Technology : A Hindu Bioethics of Assisted Reproductive Technology and Bob Simpson’s “Impossible Gifts: Bodies, Buddhism and Bioethics in Contemporary Sri Lanka” is the plurality of beliefs in modern society. We are called upon to listen to others while we speak ourselves and acknowledge different worldviews because this gives us a larger pool of information to utilize when we make important bioethical decisions in our lives. Additionally, we can even understand the plurality within our own culture and religion which isn’t always so obvious.

Bhattacharyya’s Magical Progeny, Modern Technology uses birth stories from the Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic, to shed light on the Hindu perspective on reproductive technology. She sets up the framework of the book in her introduction by first making some crucial points. Bhattacharyya acknowledges she is striving to find a middle ground which allows multiple perspectives to exist at once to stimulate dialogue across cultures and thus create dynamic solutions to complex bioethical issues (Bhattacharyya, 3). I really appreciated her methodology as it not only is rather unique but very applicable to many societies around the world. Too often, we try to construct some concrete principal that is very rigid in nature and cannot be flexed to incorporate any nuances. Instead of making a Hindu ethic, she “weaves” an ethic from Hindu religion, culture, and philosophy from the Mahabharata to respond to the assistive reproductive technology debate. Specifically, the stories of the Pandava children and their enemy cousins, the Kauravas are used to bring to light Hindu principles as a model for how people can navigate difficult bioethical issues. Hindu perspectives are applied to a particular case in the United States that dealt with ownership of a child, Jaycee. Bhattacharyya also draws comparisons of the Hindu approach to reproductive technology with the Roman Catholic and Hebrew perspectives towards this technology. It is here, in my opinion, where the reader really is able to comprehend the imaginative and pluralistic ways in which Hinduism approaches this bioethical debate. Overall, I thought Bhattacharyya did a fantastic job of voicing the main message of her book which is bringing attention to modern society to find ways to incorporate a variety of religious perspectives. She utilizes the Mahabharata in a way that convinces the reader Hinduism has relevant contributions to make in the ongoing global conversation surrounding reproductive technology.

I was very excited to read this book because although I come from a fairly strong Indian and Hindu background, I wasn’t very familiar with any conversation about reproductive technology use in my culture or what ways Hinduism could approach this debate. Interestingly enough, this may be so because Bhattacharyya acknowledges that there is no specific decree or set of regulations outlined by the religion regarding this technology. She instead analyzes the birth stories to produce the perspectives Hinduism takes. That being said, Bhattacharyya’s discussion and analysis of how Hinduism and the Mahabharata approach this debate is what stuck out to me the most from the book, partly due to the fact that we have discussed other perspectives (namely Catholicism) approaches to the debate in class. Although I wasn’t familiar with Hindu perspectives on procreation before reading the book, I wasn’t too surprised about the analyses Bhattacharyya provided. Being raised Hindu, I have learned the religion permeates through all aspects of life (culture, relationships, family etc.) and thus I have found it is very important to know there is a difference in being “culturally Hindu” as opposed to “religiously Hindu.” By being religiously Hindu, I mean adhering to the strict practices of the religion where as being culturally Hindu means one could not really be aware of every minute detail of the religion, but their way of life and behavior certainly reflects the ideals. I believe it is certainly possible to be both, but I recognize myself as more well versed in the culture of Hinduism even though I do practice the religion as well. The book confirmed a lot of what I have experienced in my lifetime in regards to the plurality of the culture; there is more than one way to live and call yourself a Hindu, as “…religion, philosophy, and the conduct of daily life are all tightly interwoven” (Bhattacharyya, 27). Accordingly, we see there are multiple avenues utilized to reproduce.

Bob Simpson’s “Impossible Gifts: Bodies, Buddhism and Bioethics in Contemporary Sri Lanka” aims to find ways the donation of gametes and women’s embryos can be made sense of in Sri Lanka, a society where organ and tissue donation is already recognized as a sort of duty through the concept of “dana” in Theravada Buddhism. Simpson draws on previous work done by Parry and Laidlaw to frame the transactions, as they are called, of organ and tissue donation in Sri Lankan society. Simpson uses the observations made by Parry and Laidlaw to extend insights into the beliefs of Sri Lankan society. Before delving into the Buddhist framing of donation, Simpson discusses the concept of ethical publicity. I interpreted ethical publicity as a means to weave society’s values and principles into a vehicle that drives one to donate. Simpson discusses the many dangers that can arise from framing donation in this way, many of them unforeseen such as indebtedness or even framing donation as a ‘gift of life.’ I was especially intrigued by the notion of a ‘gift of life’ being problematic, because in Western society we often focus on just how brave or impactful life-saving donations can be and forget there could be many secondary societal consequences created by these acts. Theravada Buddhism preaches to give parts of the body to help others and to show the donor he or she is not attached and self-indulged. Several stories from Theravada Buddhism roots discuss the giving of body parts which Simpson says holds significance for modern Buddhists. Overall, it is very clear that Buddhist ideals streamline the majority of the beliefs behind the donation process and the very act of donation itself. Donation of blood and tissue (eyes) can be traced back to significant historical events/times and each have significant justification and foundation in Buddhism. One problem with this however, is that many non-Buddhist groups such as Tamils, Muslims and Christians often are alienated and cannot find their own freedom in thought to act as they would like. This made me question the fine line behind religion’s role in these practices within Sri Lankan society, and at what cost this promotes a troubling sense of homogeneity.

Whereas organ and blood donation easily finds its grounds in Sri Lankan Buddhist society through “dana upa paramita” and has grown so much there are hints of commercialization of these transactions, gamete donation results in several issues that poses problems for the Sri Lankan Buddhist people. One of the problems regarding sperm banks is the means to obtain sperm, as there is no other way to obtain it other than physical pleasure which has no grounds in Buddhism. Sperm is also seen as a powerful substance having as much value as sixty drops of blood and the loss of sperm by a man can cause much worry. Ova on the other hand align much more with dana upa paramita as its donation involves much more pain and no pleasure like sperm donation does. When reading this section of the article, it really became clear that the ‘gift of life’ is not a stand-alone concept in Buddhism. The gift of life is only valid when it is positively viewed in regards to moral terms. This is the same issue that plagues societies all around the world, and one example that we have talked about is Donum Vitae and the Catholic perspective on reproductive technology. It is crucial when thinking of the concept of ‘gift of life’ that we always understand the principles and beliefs through which ideas governing the use of the body and ways of procreation for each society. This not only allows use to gain a broader understanding of other perspectives but more importantly is a prerequisite in order for us to even beginning to think about incorporating other pieces of thought in our bioethical decisions. Both works strive to emphasize this idea in order to shape the contemporary bioethical discussions regarding reproductive assistive technology.

While reading both of these works, I could not help but constantly think of the intertwinement of religion and culture in regards to bioethical debates. As mentioned earlier, in my personal life, I understand that there is a distinction between the two; however, religion consistently seems to guide the bioethical discussions surrounding reproductive technology across societies from all over the world. After reading and thinking about these two works, I found a difference that has made me perhaps even more puzzled on how we as humans can use religion in our decisions in life. For example, Hinduism is crowned a model in Bhattacharyya’s novel for which Western Society can use to inform their decisions regarding procreation. In my opinion, Bhattacharyya does an exemplary job demonstrating how the creative ways of procreation in the Mahabharata can be framed within modern culture. Where infertility is countered with divine power in the Mahabharata, modern medicine accomplishes this through technology (Bhattacharyya, 53). Additionally, humans and gods are seen as working together to reproduce in the Mahabharata whereas in the Hebrew perspective, God seems to have the ultimate divine control (Bhattacharyya, 68). As we have discussed with Catholicism, it is a sin to separate intercourse and conception whereas Hinduism clearly separates the two. In summary, the evident “leeway” in in the Hindu approach stems from the religion’s ability to be able to stray away from a universal philosophical principle, and examine each particular situation on its own terms. For Bhattacharyya’s work, Hinduism seems to have very few pitfalls in approaching to answer to the reproductive technology debate. Yet, the difference I noted in Simpson’s work, is that Buddhism did indeed limit approaches to reproductive technology discussed in the previous paragraph. We saw earlier that living in and committing to a Hindu style of life and behavior is portrayed as having seemingly limitless options to procreate. This is great for those who are in this society. However, what happens to those committed to Sri Lankan Buddhist way of life? Will they permanently be in a limbo when it comes to taking a side on this debate? The moral and physical restrictions placed on them by their religion seems to be impossible to overcome in order to create the ‘gift of life.’

This is where I struggle. Religion is a great means of justification when it allows for increased flexibility in one’s actions, but when religion is more stringent the picture quickly becomes more bleak. For the societies such as Sri Lanka, do we just accept that since culture is so tied to religion, religion will always reign supreme and promote one way of thinking? Obviously, we know religion is one of the most influential, if not the most, influential vehicles in almost every society’s beliefs, values, and culture (way of life). Religion streamlines our daily lives. And from these two works, we see that religions offer differing amounts of autonomy and discretion when tackling certain bioethical practices such as reproductive technology. This is not to say that any religion is superior to the other, for this defeats the purpose of both works in regards to incorporating a multitude of religious perspectives in our modern society. In a hypothetical world where there is no religion, I would be curious to see the reasons and justifications people would utilize on both sides of the reproductive technology debate. Would there necessarily be more autonomy in making these decisions without religion? Or perhaps would the same societal pressures that are present today be just as influential, such as the emphasis on individual rights in Western society as opposed to the emphasis on duty as we see in Hindu societies? I do not think there is a clear cut solution to my question by any means, but I believe it is worthwhile to ponder over for societies that are very religious. It is impossible to overturn any major religion and its guiding principles, but if we are to somehow separate culture from religion, is there any promise for groups of people such as Catholics or Sri Lankan Buddhists to find ways to be free from the moral repercussions of utilizing reproductive assistive technology? And as these two works suggest, how can we actually go about incorporating different religious ideals in our lives, when it seems that religion is almost impossible to bend? Perhaps if we are indeed able to separate culture from religion, then we could fit these new perspectives into our cultures and then make more informed bioethical decisions.