'No Harm' Applies to Stem Cell Embryos: One Buddhist's View

Embryos bear the karmic identity of a recently-deceased individual, and so are entitled to the same moral respect as adults.

BY: Damien Keown

 
Reprinted from the April 2004 issue of Science & Theology News.

Scientists see great potential for the use of human stem cells in the treatment of many medical conditions, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, diabetes, spinal cord injuries and degenerative heart conditions. Given the emphasis that Buddhism places on the central virtues of knowledge (prajña), compassion (karua) and its long tradition of practicing medicine in the monasteries, the prospect of developing cures and treatments that alleviate human suffering should be welcomed. Buddhism, however, also places great importance on the principle of ahimsa, or non-harming, and therefore has grave reservations about any scientific procedure that destroys life - whether human or animal.

While Buddhism has no central authority competent to pronounce on ethical dilemmas, like other religions, it would appear that there is no ethical problem in principle with the therapeutic use of adult stem cells. But research involving the intentional destruction of human life, such as harvesting embryonic stem cells, is morally impermissible.

Buddhism believes in rebirth and teaches that individual human life begins at conception. The new being, bearing the karmic identity of a recently deceased individual, is therefore as entitled to the same moral respect as an adult human being. For this reason, Buddhism would see the moral issues raised by stem cell research as similar to those raised by IVF treatment involving the destruction of spare embryos and abortion, regardless of the researchers' benevolent intentions or the subsequent positive consequences of the experiments.

It would therefore be immoral for stem cell researchers to use either surplus, unwanted or frozen embryos created for IVF treatment - regardless of whether they would eventually be destroyed - or cloned human embryos specifically created for research purposes, such as the 30 blastocysts recently created in South Korea from which one new stem cell line was derived.

There are a number of different views regarding the use of stem cells taken from aborted fetuses. Some believe it is permissible since the central objection that a living being was harmed through the cell harvesting would not apply because the donor is already deceased. The situation may be analogous to cadaveric organ donation for transplantation where legally valid consent has been obtained from the next of kin. The criterion here is similar to that President Bush employed in his 2001 decision allowing U.S. government-sponsored research to utilize 60 existing embryonic stem cell lines but not to use or develop new ones.

The alternative position takes a stricter view on the question of complicity, stating that the cells obtained through abortion would be tainted by the immorality of the abortion itself and should therefore not be used. The analogy of organ donation would be challenged because the person providing the consent (usually the mother) is the same person directly responsible for the donor's death. A better analogy is with stolen money from a bank robbery used for charitable purposes, something which would still be wrong regardless of the good achieved.

There is scope for legitimate disagreement on this particular point, though the majority of Buddhists may incline toward the former position. It is interesting that Buddhists are the religious majority in the country where the latest breakthrough in stem cell research occurred. Despite the traditional Buddhist opposition to abortion, however, and the fact that abortion for social reasons is illegal, South Korea has been called an "abortion paradise," and figures of more than 1.5 million abortions yearly are often quoted. This suggests there is unresolved dissonance between Buddhist teachings and practice on the moral status of embryonic life.

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