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The ethics of stem cell research: a Hindu view

17 October 2008
By Anil Bhanot
General Secretary, Hindu Council UK
Appeared in BioNews 480
What does it mean to protect 'the sanctity of life?' This is the question that for Hindus, as for those in other religious traditions, lies at the heart of debate on whether embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research is ethical.

It could be argued that embryos in the early process of fertilisation have only a 30 per cent chance of becoming a full human being, so why not use them for the potential benefit of existing human beings, for 14 days, and then destroy them? After all, it is not thought that in these early stages cells are sufficiently developed to feel any sensation or anything that could be called 'pain.'

Furthermore, we are told, the benefits of stem cell research could be radical. Each ES cell has properties of a regenerative nature, which can transform itself into any cell required, meaning it is pluripotent. Thus these cells could potentially be used to treat illnesses that we currently do not have a cure for. It is a compelling argument; when scientists tell us that in embracing this technique we could reduce the hideous effects of motor neurone disease, stroke, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and cancers of various sorts, who would dare be 'inhuman' enough to suggest this end does not justify the means?

And, as we are quite used to using animals for scientific research, where is the harm in extending that use to human life, especially human life at a primordial stage?

On the face of it, such an argument would be quite wrong. The Hindu Vedas dictate that all life is sacred, including animal and plant life. It is this precept that lies at the heart of the Hindu doctrine of non-violence or ahimsa. We believe that respect for life is a prerequisite; by showing love to all creatures, all living things, we likewise show our love towards God, who is in all things. All things are God's creation and therefore we must respect all of it, as we love all of God.

However, there is a paradox in this view. The law of nature rules that we must kill in order to survive. Human beings only live and continue to breathe by consuming the plant and, in most cases, the animal life around us. All of Creation works by taking one life for the survival of another.

The ancient Rishis, or divine sages, resolved this paradox by referring to the various stages of evolution of consciousness that we share. They believed plants were at the lowest level of consciousness. Animals then followed, and finally humans were placed at the top of the evolutionary tree. In creating this hierarchy, the Rishis ensured life itself was protected, but within the laws of creation. So, what really matters is that we protect the highest level of consciousness even if we have to kill the lower levels in order to do so.

In Hinduism the soul passes through many species - one ancient scripture suggests as many as 8.4 million species - until it finally evolves to the highest level consciousness, in the form of a human being. It is this human birth that can then bring about salvation from the cycle of rebirth and finally end up with God.

So, to be born human is to achieve the highest value within the process of reincarnation. The human life we experience, the only life which offers us the chance to achieve ultimate and final union with God, is of an even greater value. Recognising this value, Hinduism developed the ancient systems of Yoga and Ayurveda to alleviate illnesses and prolong healthy life.

Modern science works on the same quest. Medical research aims to help a person's longevity. In Hinduism all human life is evolving towards God, regardless of belief or non-belief, and that makes it much more valuable than the embryonic cell at a primordial stage, where it has no sensation. The difference is in the degree of consciousness. Further, if there is no shortage of reproducing such cells then surely we must be prepared to sacrifice a few for the greater good of helping the existing life, in itself a noble value for all our salvation?

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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