Biotech and Ethics

May 02

This month the Government of Canada tabled its long awaited legislation on reproductive technology. The government is to be commended for its courage in tackling this issue, which is an ethical minefield. In brief, the proposed legislation would allow the use of stem cells harvested from aborted embryos, and from those discarded by fertility clinics, subject to some restrictions. It would not allow the cloning of humans or the deliberate creation of embryos for research purposes. Predictably, research organizations have criticized the legislation as too restrictive, while many religious groups see it as too permissive.

Attempting to comment from a Buddhist perspective is not easy. The Buddhist religion places a high value on the relief of suffering, so very good reasons need to be advanced if we are to advocate restricting something which offers the promise of providing help to victims of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's among other diseases. The proponents of embryonic stem-cell research hold out great hopes for this line of inquiry, although little or nothing of practical value has yet emerged.

The question, and not only for Buddhists, boils down to the thorny one of when life begins. The traditional Buddhist understanding, based on the words of the Buddha recorded in the suttas, is that a new life starts when the three factors come together; "the seed of the father, the blood of the mother in her time and the consciousness seeking rebirth." This has traditionally been understood to mean conception, so Buddhist ethics have always been against abortion while allowing contraception. Up until very recently, this has been straightforward enough.

But a case could be made for some other point early in the embryo's development; the implantation in the womb, say, or the beginning of cell differentiation. If the "consciousness seeking rebirth" has not yet entered into the picture, then a Buddhist would not see any problem with using the cells to help others. This is a problem that Buddhist thinkers and teachers are only now becoming aware of.

It is not only Buddhists who need to clarify the issue of when life begins. One of the troubling aspects of the new legislation is that it does not address this at all. It is good that the new technologies are now coming under regulation, but it would be better if we could see some consistent principle upon which the rules were based. Why if it is allowable to destroy embryos under some circumstances is it not allowable to create them? A rigourous consistency would say that either an embryo is a human life worthy of protection, or it is not.

One of the provisions of the new law would be the creation of standing task force to review new technologies as they are introduced. This is an excellent idea. Now that we are coming to the stage of knowledge where we are tinkering with the building blocks of life itself, it is imperative that we avoid doing things just because we can. It is to be hoped that the commission will be as broadly based as possible, including representatives of religion as well as of medicine and science.

There are huge problems in arriving at some kind of societal consensus on the core issue of when a life begins, especially in a pluralistic society like Canada's. No religious group should be able to impose its ideas unilaterally on the rest of society. But this must also include such non-religious trends as secular humanism and materialism. This group is also entitled to its opinion and input, but not to assume the monopoly of decision making. Unfortunately, this is likely to happen if religious people don't become educated about the science involved.

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