A Buddhist perspective on stem-cell research
by Shi Xianda

The hot babe in biotech circle now seems to be stem-cell research, as tantalising with its tremendous medical and anthropological potential as it is provocative to religionists, humanists and politicians alike with its Pandora's box of moral and legal concerns. However, one gets the idea that so far all views expressed are from Western, theistic voices. As Asian countries like Singapore get more and more involved in high-end research on this technology, there would be Asian, non-theistic views waiting to be heard to provide an alternative perspective for a balanced resolution to the sticky controversy stem-cell research brings about. This article aims to present the Buddhist perspective, though by no means conclusive. At present stage, the stem cell research so far has brought about more apprehension to the general public with regard to ethical issues than the real benefit that they would reap from the research. In simpler words, should the scientists carry on their research even if it means the destruction of human embryos in the process? The sanctity of life is at once the rationale and argument against stem-cell research upheld by religionists. This decidedly places those involved in the research in the negative light of being killers of embryonic lives and on the other side of the spectrum are the hapless embryos which, if not deprived of the chance to live, will develop into human beings. While Buddhism acknowledges the sanctity of life as with other religions, we do not vehemently oppose stem-cell research merely based on simplistic perspective. We propose to look at the issue from three reference points: the embryos, the standpoint of the researchers themselves and the research as part of a bigger picture. Some advocators of the research claim that four-day-old embryos involved in the cultivating of stem cells cannot be considered as human lives. So we have here an essential question: how should we treat embryos and therefore is it morally legitimate to damage them for research purposes? Buddhism has a very clear definition for the beginning of life. Its criterion is not whether the embryo has developed into human form. Rather, according to the 12-link Dependent Origination doctrine, life begins at the very moment when the "rebirth-linking consciousness? essence from the father and blood from the mother assemble. In modern terms, this means when consciousness, sperm and egg fuse. That is to say, in terms of life, whether it begins in a in-vitro fertilization process or normal procreation process, whether it is a one-day-old or four-day-old embryo, it essentially is the same as the feotus in a mother's womb and a new-born infant, even as much as a young child, a teenager, a middle-aged person, an elderly person. In as much as life as a vital force is complete and unimpaired, it therefore should be treated equally. It cannot be denied that as far as the embryo is concerned, whether its stem cells have been gentically altered or isolated to cultivate all kinds of cells for human tissues, its life has been damaged. However, from the Buddhist standpoint, does it mean that the party consciously bringing about such a deprivation of life is guilty of killing. In Buddhism, the offence of killing is actually not established on the basis of what happened to the victim, rather it depends on the person who causes the death. That is to say, it all depends on whether he has the intention of killing. If an act is done with the malicious intention toward a sentient being, then the successful act of killing constitutes an offence of killing. To scientists whose preoccupation is in advancing the stem-cell research for the possible termination of human suffering caused by sickness and disease, whose preoccupation is really a benevolent one. When they genetically alter stem cells or isolate them from embryos, the thought never occurs to them that they are killing someone. So for such scientists, this is no question of killing. This is just like while drinking gallons of water everyday, we at the same time gulp down millions of micro-beings. In each step we take, we inadvertently trample on tiny organism under our feet. We have not got the slightest intention to kill as we go about these mundane acts of drinking and walking and so on, therefore Buddhism does not consider drinking water or walking acts of killing. But it is a fact that on the side of the victims, life of the embryos has been deprived or damaged and this cannot be said to be totally unrelated to those scientists, for at least the deprivation of life is a consequence of the action of the action of the research. In fact, they are the conditioning factor of the victim being hurt and deprived of life. They invariably have the corresponding retribution of being a condition for the embryo's loss of life. The history of man has proven that for there to be scientific/technological advancement, limited by man's ability, it is unavoidable that lives, no matter how small a number, will be hurt. Whether it is using embryos today or rats or some other animals in the past. From the Buddhist point of view, the question of inflictions to life is the same. This is our standpoint and it too applies to the stem-cell research. While accepting the fact that this is the price to pay for human advancement. Buddhism advocates that we try out level best to lower the probability of killing/hurting lives. This standpoint stems from our conviction that the stem-cell research is but a process man has to undergo in our quest to unravel the mystery of life. It is merely a process in human scientific development, not an end in itself and certainly not the final goal. By going through this process, scientists can understand more about the intricacies of life, only then can they cut down on and even desist from the use of human embryos or rats and the like for scientific research or medical applications and finally culminate in the goal to succor the masses. Scientists in the West face tremendous opposition from interest groups and political parties, the reason being that these people fail to see beyond the current phenomenon. Even in the case of England that has legitimized this research, it is probably due to the encouragement from the success of the sheep clone. They fail to recognize that this is but a process, not the result and much less the goal. From the Buddhist viewpoint, as much as we oppose willful inflictions on lab-animals, we oppose the unnecessary inflictions upon embryonic lives. We hope that these scientists will try their optimal best in the research process to lessen the possibility of harming lives even in the name of human advancement. From the victim's perspective, Buddhism believes that when an embryonic life is destroyed, the principle cause is its own karmic retribution and so the phenomenon is actually a karmic play. There are many cases that are similar to the embryos destroyed in the research, those aborted or miscarried. They too lost their lives in the first few days or weeks of conception. The one similar binding characteristics among them is their karma. People have much sympathy toward these embryos, sacrificed as it were for stem-cell research. Therefore, there is much hue and cr against this research. We believe those aborted or mis carried deserved our sympathy just as much. But if it is their own karmic force that caused these individual embryos to be deprived of a precious human birth, as much as we are powerless to help those miscarried embryos, human protests could not actually change the fate of the ones used in research. We can humanistically examine the fact of using these stem cells to develop into human organs and organ cells and to be transplanted into patient awaiting cure. There are more than few people who would gladly donate their organs to help other patients recover, and there are those who are willing to donate usable parts of their bodies after death for transplants or to donate their bodies to medical research institutes. Many people in the past might have problem accepting the concept of organ transplant, but this should not be the case now when medical advancement has made organ donation almost like a preogative. The donors give of themselves in this manner to aid medical advancement or to save lives. To them, this is not a sacrifice. It is a sacred contribution! In modern society, all mankind commends such noble acts. In fact, there are similarities between embryos used for stem-cell research and those who offered their remains and organs at death. Of course, the main difference is that those who donate their remains and organs at death are volunteers whereas the embryos have no ability to voice their opinions. At present in some countries, the decision to donate embryos for stem-cell research as cure for patients lies with the parents of the embryos, their approval or otherwise is the legal criterion. This is not to say that the opinions of the embryos' parents are closest to or representative of the embryos' views, but really, under the circumstance that an embryo does not have the faculty to voice its opinion, and there being no other substantial basis as reference for consideration. The only way is to let whoever has the greatest claim on the embryo to decide. So the opinion is really that of the "owner" of the embryo. As to whether a person can own another's life, this is another issue worthy of consideration. However, in some western countries, the right to choose based on ownership seeems to be only choice for legal considerations and is the rule of thumb, as in the case when the life of a brain-dead patient should be terminated and so it is the case of the life of an embryo. According to Mahayana Bodhisattva doctrine, it is very normal that when sentient beings are oppressed by sufferings of sickness, etc. a great Bodhisattva would sacrificehis/her own life to succour thousands. To a person struggling at the threshold of life and death, these scientists and embryo that is used in the research are really manifestations of Bodhisattvas. Judging from the present stage of development in science and technology, no one is actually able to stop the use of embryos in stem-cell research from happening. It will roll on to the next step with or without the protest. From the Buddhist viewpoint, when a scientist understands this willingly shoulders the karmic consequences resulting from undertaking such a scientific research, and if his/her goal is only to liberate mankind from the throes of sickness and pain, if he/she can be free of personal bias in the process of his/her selection of embryos (whether from clones or IVF), then we can say his/her action is that of a Bodhisattva, the acts of offering himself/herself to benefit sentient beings. He/she deserves our respect and his/her research should be encouraged, deserving our support. We can and we should expect that the success will come soon, and he/she will lessen the obstacles to research and unneccessary damage to lives and will benefit mankind. Apart from ethical questions, stem-cell research also churns up existential concerns: if embryonic stem cells can be cultivated to cure all sickness and disease, enabling the bodys's tissues to remain in top form forever, man will be able to live infinitely. But how much longer should we live? Yet, some other people would rather ask: When is he/she allowed to die? Actually both the apprehension and expectation behind these questions are unfounded. Buddhism says life is posssible because the necessary conditions obtain. Changes in the life continuumcome about because of the interplay of karma and other forces. The very nature of human life is impermanence, without an immutable self and is heir to birth, old age, sickness and death. Genetic science, including cloning and stem-cell research, are but positive examples, facts man-in-the street in this contemporary world can understand, that substantiate this Buddhist doctrine. Cultivating embryonic stem cells to cure all illnesses of mankind is only a theoretical possibilty because so far this is only a cure for physical ailments. This kind of treatment has not been verified in any research report to be able to cure mental sickness. Moreover, this kind of treatment takes time, so it is only applicable to chronic disease/illness, but it is absolutely useless in the face of fatal viral attacks. In fact, even if medical technology reaches the point where any organ can be repaired or even replaced, all that can only prolonglife span, all existing data still show that imortality is impossible. We can see aparallel situation in our cars. We can repair or change any spare part when it is worn out even changing the entire engine and chassis. It can at most prolong the working life of the car. In the end, it still has to go the way of waste metals. So, it is with our TVs, watches, computers, clothes, etc, they can be repaired again and again but they still come to the daywhen they simply cannot be repaired anymore. So, cultivating stem cells to cure all man's illnesses can still not lead to man's living infinitely. If this much-hyped technoly serves only the purpose of prolonging mans life, then it is really not as remarkable as we believe. Throughout history, people had found ways and meansto prolong life: alternative life-styles, herbal therapy, prescriptions, hilistic approach, etc. Cultivating stem cells to eradicate illness as a means to prolong life is just the modern man's answer to the age-old desire to prolong living. This desire to live longer and healthier itself is not wrong from the Buddhist perspective. But one should see the meaning of life in what he/she achieves, the length of one's life does not really mean much aprt from individual perception. The other question the stem-cell research brings is social fairness. Take for example, two men, one rich and the other poor. Both are 60 years old, having the same health conditions, both are sentenced to 10 years' jail because of criminal offences. Both have only three months to live after their release. The rich man can always pay for genetic treatment and prolong his life for another 10 years but the poor man cannot afford this dies shortly after release. In this way, though the rich man was sentenced to 10 years' jail, he bought back those wasted 10 years with money. The poor man died shortly after his release, too poor to buy time- the sentence as as good as death sentence. Is this fair? Or should the criteria for sentencing be also based on life span? But if sentencing criteria take life span into consideration, how should a young man and an old one be sentenced justly if they committed the same criminal offence ? This is only an example. According to the doctrine of karma, it is in fact nothing more than karmic forces in play (whether one is born rich orpoor), but to ordinary people, the individuals who are rich can buy life-span and others cannot is an unfair phenomenon. Stem-cell research as an answer to fatal sickness is a scientific achievement for mankind as a whole, its benefits should also belong to the whole mankind and it should serve all mankind, enabling each indiviual to receive equal medical benefits in the face of the torments from sickness. It should not be the privilege of the wealthy few nor should it ever be the loot of the unsrupulous through violent means. Though we cannot completely avoid the inequality between the rich and the poor, yet when we come to the question of life, we have all the reasons to treat each and every human being equally, in the same way we insist on basic human rights which are universal despite the rich-poor divide. In Avatamsaka Sutra, it is said: May all beings get to be liberated from sufferings. This is the fundamental goal of Buddhism. If stem-cell research starts off from the vision to liberate all beings from the suffering of sickness, then it does not contradict the Buddhist spirit of socail engagement. From the Buddhist standpoint, the crux of the stem-cell research is the proper use of embryonic stem cells. Even in situations of life and death, until and unless all other feasible avenues have been exhausted, we should avoid transplants of tissues or organ cells derived from cultivated stem cells. If people exploit stem cells for the mere objective to prolong life, it will not only immoral but downright deplorable. In the Buddhist lore, the only effective means to ensure longevity will be to refrain from taking lives and devoting oneself to the preservation of lives. Harming living beings to gratify one's obsessive atttach-ment to life will only aggravate one's karmic obstacle.