As reproductive technology continues to rapidly grow and develop across the globe, an increasing number of anthropologists seek to understand the role these technologies play within different cultures, societies, and civilizations. In order to understand the importance and permissibility of reproductive practices cross-culturally, anthropologists turn to religious texts to form the foundations of such bioethical conversations. In this paper, I will explore the work of Swasti Bhattacharyya in her book, Magical Progeny, Modern Technology: A Hindu Bioethics of Assisted Reproductive Technology, which delves into her interpretation of how the Mahabharata can be used to explain various bioethical issues in India. I will also look at Michael J. Broyde’s Marriage, Sex, and Family in Judaism, in which he forms a preliminary analysis of reproductive technologies, specifically cloning, from a Jewish normative law perspective. Through a careful analysis of both works, I will characterize some of the main differences found between Bhattacharyya’s and Broyde’s works, and draw conclusions about their perspectives on the cultural implications of reproductive technology found in two, different countries.
Bhattacharyya uses the Mahabharata, the longest epic ever written, as her primary source to analyze and draw bioethical conclusions from a Hindu perspective regarding reproductive technologies. She begins her book by establishing that because Hinduism has no formal law regarding reproductive technology, she will use her interpretation of three stories from the Mahabharata describing three women and their efforts to bear children, to create a Hindu perspective of bioethics. She uses the Mahabharata because its “paradigmatic narratives are mines that upon excavation will reveal the jewels that reflect India’s past, its present, and Hinduism’s ethical ideology” (Bhattacharyya 32). Ostensibly, the book seems to emphasize the stories which are told in great detail; however, it becomes increasingly clear by the end of the book, that the level of detail in these stories is not as important as her overall message and goal: religion and culture play a large role in bioethics and it is thus extremely important to establish and understand cultural competency. Bhattacharyya’s description of the stories in the Mahabharata serve as a cosmology and foundation for her formation of different bioethical principles from a Hindu perspective. She describes Hinduism as a religion, “overflowing with options, alternatives, and divergent beliefs” (Bhattacharyya 49) and that it is for this reason that Hindus welcome pluralism, embracing a variety of different voices, and are bothered by any “attempt to eliminate alternative views” (Bhattacharyya 50). It is important to recognize that Bhattacharyya does not claim to represent the Hindu voice of reproductive technology and morals, but rather seeks to take many, different voices into consideration in attempt to draw more broad and abstract conclusions about such technology usage in India.
With a significantly different methodology, Broyde uses various sets of Jewish laws emphasized by rabbinic authorities in attempt to draw conclusions about cloning. Broyde uses these concrete laws and morals to guide his thoughts throughout the article, leaving little room for interpretation. Unlike Bhattacharyya’s attempt to draw analogies between the stories in the Mahabharata and bioethics, Broyde focuses on how specific Jewish laws and beliefs about reproductive technology affect kinship rules and situations while simultaneously interweaving the scientific process of cloning. Broyde’s goal is “not to advance a rule that represents itself as definitive normative Jewish law” (Broyde 304), but rather, to “attempt to outline some of the issues in the hope that others will focus on the same problems.” This goal lends itself to his preliminary analysis regarding the effect of cloning on marriage, parental status, and other related kinship issues. Through a series of examples regarding other reproductive technologies, Broyde’s article argues that fundamentally, cloning is a form of assisted reproduction. He suggests that cloning is “no different from artificial insemination or surrogate motherhood” and that this form of assisted reproduction should be made available those who need it (Broyde 305). Rather than drawing on analytic philosophy like Bhattacharyya, Broyde uses the American legal system to help compare his ideas for Jewish perspectives on reproductive technology. He describes that, unlike the American court system, “genetic relationship does not establish legal relationship” (Broyde 328). According to Jewish law, the gestational mother is almost always considered to be the “real” mother of the child. From here, he establishes that because the surrogate mother or gestational mother is considered to be the real mother, this directly creates a kinship issue as it then prohibits the surrogate mother from marrying any relatives of the surrogate mother. Broyde’s scientific methodology can be characterized as one that uses current Jewish laws regarding reproductive technology to address the questions of cloning and public policy.
Bhattacharyya’s methodology leads her to use comparative works from specific texts that have “significantly influenced modern ‘Western American’ thinking, namely the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament” (Bhattacharyya 56). She uses texts from the Hebrew Bible and Roman Catholicism to serve as guidelines for comparison in order to drive her own opinions regarding Hindu perspectives on reproductive technology in India. Most notably, she asserts that “in the Hebrew bible and New Testament, though humans are involved, God is ultimately in control of human procreation” (Bhattacharyya 58), immediately comparing this to the notion that in the Mahabharata, gods and humans are often co-equals in the procreative process. She uses the Church’s belief that “the soul is infused into the embryo at the moment of conception” (Bhattacharyya 62) to assert that the Church views IVF, ZIFT, and other reproductive technologies as “destroyed ensouled zygotes”. She ultimately uses the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church to draw a sharp contrast of how these beliefs do not find their equivalent within Hinduism. Instead, she uses what she refers to as the “six key elements of Hindu thought” to underline the construction of Hindu ethic with respect to reproductive technology.
Although Broyde and Bhattacharyya take vastly different approaches to the exploration of reproductive technologies, I believe they would share similar perspectives with respect to the dilemmas of prenatal testing. Because Broyde explains that “reproductive technologies are neither prohibited nor permissible in the eyes of Jewish law, but rather subject to a case-by-case analysis” (Broyde 295), I believe he would advocate for the same mentality with respect to prenatal testing. Throughout his work, Broyde revisits the Jewish obligation for man “to be fruitful and multiply” and because possible consequences of prenatal testing may include termination of the pregnancy, Broyde might be hesitant to assert that rabbinical authorities would be accepting of such technology. However, Broyde may also add that “moral conservatism is an objective morality and not everything that humanity wants or can do is proper,” ultimately arguing that God is the only power that can dictate such decisions regarding the state or health of the child (Broyde 303). Similarly, because Bhattacharyya describes Hinduism as a collection of different voices and ideas, I believe she would subscribe to a comparable perspective regarding prenatal testing. She would most likely suggest that prenatal testing is an example of a “case-by-case” situation that must take into account the different “Hindu voices” as well as resonate with the six key elements of Hinduism she outlines: centrality of societal good, belief in the unity of all life, dharma, the multivalent nature of Hindu traditions, karma, and commitment to do no harm (ahimsa). Prenatal testing would most likely fall under the elements of dharma and karma. The decision to engage in prenatal testing would follow the action of dharma, while the decision to take responsibility for that action would fall under the element of karma. Essentially, the decision for a mother to partake in prenatal testing would not be dictated by a Hindu law, but would be left to the individual to decide and take responsibility for that action.
Both texts are clearly intended for different audiences and thus, take vastly different approaches to the subject of reproductive technology. While Bhattacharyya draws on analogies she makes from the Mahabharata as the foundation for her creation of the Hindu principles regarding bioethics and reproductive technologies, Broyde uses the normative Jewish laws that help frame his discussion for reproductive cloning. Ultimately, with the rise of reproductive technology and its increasing usage, it is important to recognize and characterize such differences in order to gain cultural competence in order to understand its effect on kinship and society as a whole.
Swasti Bhattacharya, Magical Progeny, Modern Technology: A Hindu Bioethics of Reproductive Technology (Suny University Press, 2006).
Michael J. Broyde, “Modern Reproductive Technologies and Jewish Law,” In Michael J. Broyde and Michael Ausubel editors, Marriage, Sex and the Family in Judaism. (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), pp. 295-328