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Buddhism in the News


Saturday, August 02, 2008

Buddhism and Stem Cells.

I was watching a great lecture given by the great Sam Harris and wanted to relay some of the information he mentioned about stem cell research. He talked about the embryonic stem cells which seem to show the most potential and that the stem cells used from this form come from the blastocyst, which is a collection of 50-150 cells and is only 4-5 days old. It's not organized with a nervous system and it doesn't have a brain. And the blastocysts that the scientists and doctors want to use are excess embryos created for in vitro fertilization donated with consent and used for the research.

Now think about this, the brain of a common house fly has 100,000 cells that make up its brain and that is just a fly!! A fly has a brain and a fly has neurons. Yet most of us don't think twice about killing one of them, however, do worry about destroying a 5 day old ball of cells that will be destroyed anyway? It seems short sighted to not make the most of these blastocysts before they are discarded. As Harris describes it, "We know that more suffering is visited upon this Earth every time we swat a fly than when we kill a three day old human embryo."

Sam Harris again:

"On one had with have this collection of 50-150 cells and on the other we have little girls suffering from diabetes and full body burns, we have men and women with Parkinson's disease, we have literally tens of millions of people suffering terrible torments which could one day be remediated by this research." I submit to you, if you think that the interests of a virtually microscopic collection of cells; I mean if you had ten of these (blastocysts) in the palm or your hand right now you would never notice. If you think that the interests of these organisms may yet trump the interests of a girl with full body burns, you have had your ethical intuitions blinded by religious metaphysics. No ethical argument would get you there. No argument that talked about human suffering and its alleviation would get you there. It's not enough to say that the collection of human cells are potential human beings. Given genetic engineering every cell in our body with a nucleus is a potential human being, every time the president scratches his nose he's engaged in a holocaust of potential human beings.

Just take for a moment the claim that there are souls in this petri dish, that every human blastocyst, a three day old embryo is ensouled. Well unfortunately, embryos at that stage can split into twins so what happens, we have one soul becoming two souls? Embryos at an even later stage can fuse back into what is called a kymero, a single individual born of two embryos, so do we have two souls becoming one soul? This arithmetic of souls doesn't make much sense.
James: As a Buddhist I agree with everything Mr. Harris has said above. I don't believe that we complex humans have souls let alone blastocysts. As one Buddhist scientist described it, "It is the recycling of life." In other words it is using life that would be discarded anyway to better the life and reduce the suffering of a living breathing being. I don't see it any different than donating blood or donating an organ upon your death. In a manner of speaking It's all a type of rebirth and coming from a place that any Buddhist would recognize, compassion.

Want to what the Dalai Lama thinks, so did I as he's the closest thing we have to a central authority on Buddhism. I know not all of us follow his tradition, like myself, but I think we can all agree that he's an expert on the Buddhadharma:

From the Buddhist perspective, the general line of demarcation in ethics is based mainly on the long-term consequences-the results of the scientific research. It's very difficult to distinguish the ethical status of an action simply by judging the nature of the action itself. Much depends on the actor's motivation. A 'spiritual' act with negative motivation is essentially wrong. A more aggressive act may seem destructive, but if that specific action is carried out with altruistic motivation, and the proper sort of goal, then it could be positive. Of course, the motivation is not opaque to the individual who is engaged in the act. So, it very much depends on the scientists' motivation. If you as scientists have a sincerely compassionate motivation, and a sense of responsibility for the long-term implications, then carry out your work and make your decisions. If you have to weigh the benefit for a smaller community against a larger community, the larger community is more important, generally speaking.

ut the basic point is that whatever is most beneficial is what needs to be pursued-or at least what an individual feels is probably going to be of most benefit and least negative is what that individual should carry out.
On the question of gene replacement and manipulation, this is similar to things we are already doing at the gross physical level. For example kidney, heart, and liver transplants are now very common practice and patients benefit from these transplants. By extension of that principle, one could conceivably replace or change certain genetic components that are instrumental in causing diseases. But we should at least have a very high degree of knowledge of the implications, both the benefits and the side effects. And then, perhaps, in principle, this would be acceptable.

"But how do we understand at what point consciousness enters the embryo? This is problematic. A fetus, which is becoming a human is already a sentient being. But a fertilized egg may actually bifurcate into 8, 16, 32, 64 cells and become an embryo,
and yet be naturally aborted and never become a human being. This is why I feel that for the formation of life, for something to actually become a human, something more is needed than simply a fertilized egg. It may be that what you do to a conglomeration of cells that have the possibility of becoming human entails no negative or karmically unwholesome act. However, when you're dealing with a configuration of cells that are definitely on the track to becoming a human being, it's a different situation. (James: My interpretation of this last sentence is that it becomes more problematic at a more advanced stage. For example I don't think many scientists are willing to exploit full blown fetuses for stem cells.)

"In some areas, Buddhism may have a different perspective from secular ethics. I think for example about human rights. From the Buddhist viewpoint, it is very difficult to claim that we human beings have special rights that are categorically different from animal rights. All sentient beings, all beings who have the experience of pain and pleasure, have the natural right to protect their existence and fulfill their aspiration to overcome suffering and enjoy happiness. The claim to rights is based on the capacity to experience pain and pleasure; it has nothing to do with intelligence, which is the main distinction between animals and human beings. They have the same experiences of pain and pleasure that we do.

James: As the DL reminds us, sentient beings are basically those who can feel pleasure and pain. So as blastocysts do not have central nervous systems to even register pain let alone a brain to experience I think it is safe to say that it is not yet human life. In conclusion my interpretation of the DL's teachings above definitely allow for stem cell research as long as it's done at the early blastocyst stage). Of course we know that we can not end all suffering in this world but it would be irresponsible of us not to help when and where we can to ease suffering.

~Peace to all beings~

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Inner Oddness said...

Awsome post. I love applying Buddhist ethics to science, one of my other loves.

The point made of "the recylcing of life" will always stick with me.

Thank you, and peace.

21awake said...

For sure - "recycling of life" is a keeper. This whole issue really brings to the fore how we hold to views and the difficulty inherent in having to be 'right'. HH's encouragement of us to investigate motivation is always a productive one and I think there is also something in there around appropriateness and being able to hold paradox with attentive kindness.

Greenwoman said...

recycling life is a good way to put it. Nice post James. Blessings my friend. *winks*

Ginger said...

i really like how you brought forth most people's willingness to kill flies when they're so unwilling to use a few cells that are doomed anyway because of their religious beliefs. it maybe would be more effective if it were pointed out how people are willing to let animals suffer and be murdered everyday for their own pleasure and convenience because they refuse to go without their burgers and chicken wings.

Tim said...

Bro James,
Great post. It's amazing how many people object to stem cell research based on religious conviction. To me, it just doesn't make sense.

scruffysmileyface said...

But then, how many times have we ("we") killed in the name of religion? In the name of Christian ethics?

And how many FUTURE living beings are we killing by not conducting what research we can, right now?

But the politicians (and in this I'm including all of them - don't decieve yourself) aren't acting out of some deeply-held conviction. They're doing that which offers the greatest outward appearance, using the smallest possible number of words in their soundbytes.

The logical and ethical arguments are often moot.

They call him James Ure said...

Inner Oddness:

Thanks, I too enjoy science a lot.

I liked that example of recycling life a lot too. It makes so much sense. You're welcome and peace be unto you as well.


Yes and I think it comes down to right intention.

GW: Thanks!!


Yeah I thought that was a good example too. I wish it was mine!! :) You said:

it maybe would be more effective if it were pointed out how people are willing to let animals suffer and be murdered everyday for their own pleasure and convenience because they refuse to go without their burgers and chicken wings.

So true.


Thanks. I don't understand it either my friend. I just don't see the problem either.


Well said.

Dhamma81 said...

I don't think stem cell research at the level you are talking about would be harmful at all. As I have said before I am wary of science for many reasons but I cannot find anything to gripe about here. Be well.

ozmadefun said...

"Much depends on the actor's motivation" about sums it up for me. Thinking about the original intention for these embryonic cells..the sole reason being intended for couples who couldn't conceive a baby without medicat intervention.The embryo cells were only donated because the couples no longer needed them and the embryonic cells were stored at a cost to the larger community. The couples in most cases had given up the hope of children. Their suffering is turned into hope for other's to benefit form future stem cell research.Why is it only "the recycling of life" that is the motivation here? On the surface I could leave it there.Altenatively in psychology this question arises,what about the connection intwined with ego that motivates humans to action?

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm a stem cell researcher working on human embryonic stem cells from the early blastocyst stage. I have momentarily stopped experiments whilst trying to finish a literature review and stumbled on this site. I am really happy I did, since I have been asking many of the questions which have been answered very well on this page. I'm working on a project to better understand how these cells make decisions to become one cell type over another, with the longer term aim to help other stem cell researchers direct stem or somatic (cells from any part of an adult body) cells into cell for the treatment of various diseases.

Even though this goal was my motivation for starting the work I have been frought with doubts about the moral and spiritual implications of the research. But the comment about senitent beings having the ability to feel pain and pleasure has been like a message from the universe - helping me to put things into perspective. I agree that without the abilty to perceive feelings of pleasure or pain the sentient nature has not yet come into being and this belief is empowering and calming.

I am eternally grateful for your help in empowering me to cast off my doubts and thank you so much for putting up this blog, for collecting these thoughts in an unbiased, objective and honest way.


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